Lizzette Vidal-Alicea was a senior in the mass communication department at Virginia Commonwealth University a year ago and unsure of what she wanted to do for a living.
She thought about going into advertising but was turned off by some perceptions she had of the business. As someone who was paying her own way through college, she wasn't sure about graduate school and worried that there wouldn't be opportunities for her.
Vidal-Alicea is the epitome of both the challenges the advertising industry faces and the solutions many are putting in place to fix a problem that's plagued the business for decades.
While the ad industry has long been known as a place of openness and creativity, what many on the outside don't realize is that it is a closed world where minorities have historically had little access to the corporate offices and had a tough time breaking into the lower ranks, experts say.
"I don't have a rosy picture" of the industry, said Tom Burrell, a former advertising executive and founder of Burrell Communications Group, one of the nation's largest African-American-owned marketing firm.
The Madison Avenue Project, a NAACP-affiliated group that tracks the ad industry, found in a 2009 study that African-Americans make up only 5.9 percent of the total workforce at agencies and 4.3 percent of management positions.
Burrell, author of "Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority," said that when it comes to bringing in minorities or people from different socioeconomic backgrounds, the advertising industry "has lagged behind every other industry that I can think of."
That closed world, however, seems to be opening up as ad agencies attempt to become more diverse in order to better relate to an audience that's becoming more multicultural.
Several groups and agencies have worked for years to open the doors to a more diverse workforce, but changing demographics are forcing more and more ad shops to change the face and make-up of ad agencies.
That takes time, experts say.
"Traditionally, advertising has been dominated by white males who come from higher socioeconomic backgrounds than your average consumer," said Lauren Tucker, senior vice president and director of consumer forensics at The Martin Agency, the Shockoe Slip-based ad shop.
"While things have changed since the 'Mad Men' days, there is still a lot of work to be done if the industry is to reflect the consumers that we seek to influence."
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The reasons why there historically has been a lack of diversity in the ad business vary. Most experts agree, though, that it stems from both a lack of access to jobs and minorities not being aware of the opportunities available to them.
"It's hard for us to find diverse talent, and we're black owned," said Moses Foster, president and CEO of Richmond ad agency West Cary Group.
To address the issue, the industry needs to do a better job of exposing young people to the benefits and career options the ad business offers, he said.
Foster, who has worked on the issue with the VCU Brandcenter, believes raising awareness is particularly important if agencies want to reach young minority college students who, in some cases, are the first generation in their families to go beyond high school.
Unlike law, medicine and engineering, advertising is not always looked on as a solid career option, he said. Consequently, convincing parents or students that it's a viable career choice can be difficult.
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