Early last year, the NAACP, in conjunction with Washington, D.C.-based law firm Mehri & Skalet, issued a sounding cry about the advertising industry: African Americans were grossly underrepresented. Sixteen percent of large advertising firms had no black managers or professionals, a rate 60% higher than in the overall labor market.
That finding came as no surprise to Lincoln Stephens. When the University of Missouri-Columbia graduate started his first advertising job at the Dallas-based agency TracyLocke in 2004, “I was one of only a few black males at a company of about 300 people,” he says.
The lack of African American advertising professionals has broad ramifications, says Janelle M. Carter, an associate with Mehri & Skalet. Last year, the law firm and the NAACP launched the Madison Avenue Project, which fights racial discrimination in the ad industry. “If ad agencies were more inclusive, they could take advantage of a broad ranging diversity in talent and greater creativity,” believes Carter. And so does Stephens.
After four years working in advertising, Stephens decided to channel his energy and expertise into helping the next generation of professionals by creating The Marcus Graham Project (www.marcusgrahamproject.org), a national initiative based in Dallas that provides training and mentorship to African American men in the advertising industry.
Named after Marcus Graham, the fictional ad exec played by Eddie Murphy in the 1992 film Boomerang, the organization is designed to spark interest in the industry as the movie did for Stephens. “I remember seeing Boomerang, and there weren’t that many images of successful blacks in the media,” says Stephens, who is now 29. “The thing most prevalent in our country is advertising, but there aren’t a lot of places where one can get exposed to these careers.”
Last year, Stephens launched a boot camp, an 11-week program in which a team of African American men between 18 and 34 created real-world marketing and advertising campaigns. In last year’s inaugural run, the seven participants created campaigns for clients such as the City of Dallas and Los Angeles-based eco-friendly clothing manufacturer Broccoli City. Besides the program, Stephens launched an online mentoring community (www.marcusgrahamproject.ning.com). Today, the Internet forum boasts about 150 members who network, discuss industry trends, and share career advice. “Essentially, we’re building a strategic army to go out and lead,” say Larry L. Yarrell II, a co-founding member of the program. “We’re preparing young men for a change in the industry and allowing them to use their raw talents to affect change.”
To fund the dream, Stephens relies on donations and personal savings. He shares office space with other media professionals to keep costs manageable, and boot camp participants used in-kind donations to produce their marketing campaigns. When the team needed to build a counter for a green awareness event, for example, they used leftover Styrofoam donated by a local construction facility. Stephens hopes the program’s initial success will inspire larger donations since he’d like to offer boot campers stipends, and he estimates programming costs at $13,000 per participant. He’s also in the process of filing for 501(c)(3) status and choosing a board.
And although in the early stages, Yarrell says The Marcus Graham Project is gaining interest within the industry. “We’ve gotten calls from CEOs, young and old, who have heard or been affected by the program and they’re not just saying good job, but calling to see how they can be involved. It’s very positive. It’s very forward thinking.”
“You’re running full speed ahead, completing projects from start to finish,” says Quinton Wash of Dallas. After last year’s boot camp, the 25-year-old scored freelance advertising gigs from CBS Radio and TracyLocke, and this year he’ll create a Website for the upcoming play Tyler Perry’s Madea’s Big Happy Family.
Stephens aims to have The Marcus Graham Project serve as a breeding ground for companies seeking top talent. “Employers say, ‘I don’t know where to find diverse talent,’” Stephens says. “We’re giving them a place that they can go to see that we exist.”
This article originally appeared in the February 2010 issue of Black Enterprise magazine.