Ad agency Interpublic Group acts as mentor to build diversity

"The important thing is to get the fundamentals in place," board member Jill Considine says. "We want it to be something we live and breathe — not just be a stand-alone program."

Gardner says she focused on recruiting, because minorities tended to exit the industry at higher rates because they felt alienated and saw few growth opportunities.

"People left after two years, so the junior levels were a problem," says Gardner, the daughter of a U.S. Army officer who met his wife in Germany. "We had a high attrition rate with minorities, about 30% higher turnover than with the general population. We knew that was one of the areas we had to tackle."

Hires seen as a measure of success

Among those completing the InterAct Associates program this month is Dalen Cuff, 24, a graduate of Columbia University where he played basketball. He has accepted a job with IPG sports-marketing agency Momentum.

"It seems like IPG is trying to address (lack of diversity) by infusing talent at the bottom, not just trying to retain talent that's already in the agency," Cuff says.

Associates are not guaranteed jobs with IPG, but only one hasn't been hired since the program began. And 13 of the 15 who graduated through last year remain IPG employees. Trainees have an inside track to job openings, and the current crop recently met with representatives from more than a dozen IPG-owned agencies and showcased their work.

Kayu Tai, 23, finished early in January and now works as an art director at IPG's Draftfcb in Chicago. During her training she helped transform 500 mailboxes in 200 cities to look like R2-D2 robots from Star Wars to promote the U.S. Postal Service's stamps commemorating the 30th anniversary of the film. Tai is originally from Hong Kong and graduated from The College for Creative Studies in Detroit.

Still, advertising is a tough sell for many college students. Agency entry-level salaries in 2006, the most recent year available, averaged $26,000 vs. $49,000 in telecommunications or $51,500 in financial services, according to the Compensation Survey of Marketing Professionals by the American Marketing Association and industry consultant Aquent.

The number of students that IPG recruits for the associates program each year is based on expected hiring down the road.

Those who make the cut get a starting salary of $35,000, a personal mentor and the chance to learn a lot quickly. After orientation, they move into areas such as buying, managing accounts, digital ads, copy writing and art design.

There's a financial incentive for managers, too. Meeting IPG's diversity goals can account for 10% to 15% of a manager's annual bonus — $40,000 to $60,000 for a senior manager. This year, two missed their diversity targets and paid the price. "As you would expect, this really got their attention, and it underscores our commitment to accountability as it relates to diversity," says IPG spokesman Philippe Krakowsky.

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