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October 10, 2022

Greater Hartford ad agency leaders launching not-for-profit portfolio school to help diversify creative workforce

Ron Perine is the CEO of Avon ad agency Mintz + Hoke and board chair of the Connecticut Creative Academy, a startup not-for-profit portfolio school.

For decades, the advertising industry has relied on traditional colleges and portfolio schools as their go-to sources for hiring creative talent like copy writers and art directors.

But these pricey programs, which can cost tens of thousands of dollars, are often a barrier to entry to advertising careers for those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

That’s limiting the variety of new hires available and bringing together of different cultural perspectives that can enhance creativity, the lifeblood of ad agencies.

“The available talent pool is just not very diverse,” said Sean Crane, chief creative officer of Mintz + Hoke, a leading regional advertising agency based in Avon. “The traditional schools tend to get a very homogeneous group of kids,” those from socially and economically privileged backgrounds.

Crane and Ron Perine, CEO of Mintz + Hoke, are on a mission to close that gap. They’ve teamed up to spearhead the newly-formed Connecticut Creative Academy (CCA) as a not-for-profit portfolio school that will offer free tuition to up-and-coming creatives from diverse, disadvantaged backgrounds who lack the means to take the conventional routes into advertising careers.

“This is about taking our expertise and allowing people to understand all the opportunities in an ad agency that they might not otherwise know about without a college degree or more,” Perine said.

Mintz + Hoke Chief Creative Officer Sean Crane.

The academy is looking to attract both young creative aspirants and older adults looking to fulfill earlier career dreams, “someone who didn’t get a chance to get into the field 20 years ago, but wanted to,” he said.

CCA’s aim is not only to open a new pipeline to access more diverse creative talent, but also place those students within industry jobs to create more representative and inclusive content.

“Diversity is not only important within our creative teams but also important to our clients,” Crane said, pointing to the shifting demographics both nationally and within Connecticut.

 Nearly four in 10 Americans identify with a race or ethnic group other than white, for example.

“We need to increase the sensibility of voices that are delivering the messaging to an increasingly diverse demographic,” Crane said.

New perspectives

A diverse workforce remains a hurdle in the ad industry in general just as the national conversation around inclusion has never been stronger.

Many leading agencies pledged to increase efforts around diversity, equity and inclusion following the murder of George Floyd in 2020 and the national reckoning in its wake around racial, ethnic and social injustices.

But change is slow, as a recent report reveals. A 2021 study by the Association of National Advertisers and the Alliance for Inclusive and Multicultural Marketing found that three in four employees in the ad and marketing industries are white.

African-American/Black and Hispanic/Latinx are both underrepresented, at 6.6% and 8.9%, respectively, compared to their representation in the total U.S. population at 13.6% and 18.9%.

Other research suggests the lack of diversity within the industry is also making it challenging to create content that doesn’t perpetuate unconscious biases.

For example, a 2021 study released by Unilever found that one in two people from marginalized communities — including Black, Hispanic, Asian and LGBTQ — feel they have been stereotyped in some way through advertising that could fuel prejudice.

CCA is one of many initiatives in the works to boost diversity within adland, said Gord McLean, president of the AEF, the education foundation of the Association of National Advertisers.

Gord McLean

“We’re seeing more and more of these programs being developed, which is just better for the industry,” McLean said.

Some firms, such as M&C Saatchi, are setting up in-house educational incubators for non-degreed creatives that offer on-the-job training. Others are investing in internship programs for high school and college students of color to introduce them to advertising careers and setting up other types of in-house or industry-sponsored workshops to address diversity gaps in their creative workforces in terms of experience, gender, ethnicity, even age.

CCA’s not-for-profit approach over a company-centric one, however, McLean finds unique and valuable.

“This is very much needed,” he said.

Competitive portfolio

Perine has been working to rally ad industry and marketing professionals in Hartford and throughout the state around CCA’s potential to be a homegrown change-maker that can help them onboard fresh talent.

“This isn’t a feeder system for us,” he said. “We view this as getting creative people from other agencies in Connecticut to be on the roster, which can help them as well and bring ad agencies together for a common good.”

The initial response to CCA within the local advertising community has been overwhelmingly positive, Perine said.

“Getting people excited about being part of it hasn’t been a problem,” he said.

One challenge ahead may be fundraising. As the nonprofit is still being hatched, its launch is dependent on donations from foundations and other nonprofits as well as corporate sponsorships.

Funding will finance candidates' tuition as well as provide access to MacBooks and Adobe software and even subsidized transportation, said Perine, who is actively networking to achieve these goals as the nonprofit's board chairman.

Other board members include:

  • Michael Scricco, a former ad creative and now adjunct professor of visual communication design in the Hartford Art School at the University of Hartford.
  • Christine Santacroce, a senior managing partner at Virago Search.
  • Angela Martin, a content strategy consultant at Mintz + Hoke.

While Perine anticipates filling additional board seats with industry expertise, he plans to initially keep CCA’s overhead low by hiring an executive director as its sole staff and housing its activities within available office space at Mintz + Hoke’s Avon headquarters.

By early next year, CCA expects to begin accepting applications and rolling out a 20-week program to 20 up-and-coming creatives attending twice weekly nightly sessions, which can be done in-person or remotely depending on a student’s circumstances.

Among the goals is exposing them to a wide range of agencies, versus just one, said Crane, who is designing the curriculum to include volunteer guest lecturers and mentors from ad agencies both near and far to help students build a competitive portfolio and also meet with potential employers.

“You need a great portfolio to get a job in this industry, that’s what matters,” he said.

The program will offer a diploma to graduates, but is not yet seeking any official education accreditation.

To find untapped potential, CCA also plans to broaden its search for candidates through outreach efforts to high school guidance counselors, local community leaders, youth groups and community colleges in low-income neighborhoods in Hartford and beyond where advertising and marketing might not be viewed as a viable career path to students.

“We want to talk to people who haven’t even thought of advertising as a career,” Crane said.

Ideal candidates will need to showcase their talent through writing and design samples and make their case in online applications about why they deserve a spot at CCA, Crane said.

“We need to see their desire and passion to be in the business,” he said.

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