AAF's Steve Pacheco: Empathy, Empowerment, Energy Drive Diversity Activism

By Advancing Diversity Hall of Honors Archives
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The American Advertising Federation's (AAF) High School AdCamp is a beneficiary of the Advancing Diversity Education Fund, underwritten by MediaVillage, AdvancingDiversity.org and the media community.

The year was 1984 and a young Crayola-inspired college student named Steve had just been awarded a chance to compete for a coveted national competition by theAmerican Advertising Federation. Fast forward 36 years, little did he know he would be leading the charge towards achieving the AAF's mission of being "The Unifying Voice for Advertising" across North America.

A self-professed advertising aficionado who approaches ads with a level of scientific rigor and youthful vitality that pays tribute to both the art and science of our great profession, Pacheco believes advertising, "attracts the most creative and curious people in the world".

Growing up in the gritty city of Memphis with journalistic ambitions, the young Pacheco was deftly guided by a valued mentor towards a career in advertising. The rest, as they say, is history.

The AAF, the organization that Pacheco (pictured below) leads today, started in 1905 and delivers on its promise of true representation. It is the only organization that has a true open-door policy, where anyone who is in the advertising ecosystem can become a member - across disciplines, across career levels and across stakeholders: agencies, clients, producers, writers, technologists, publishers and content creators. According to Pacheco, by "creating a warm, rich mix of diversity" you are creating an environment for genuine storytelling that cuts through, and as he pointedly reminds us "you cannot advertise to a multicultural world, if you don't represent them".

Energize the Pipeline

For over a hundred years, the ad industry has accepted the AAF as the de facto talent pipeline for the industry, with its vast reach and influence across a network of 40,000 members and 200 local chapters nationwide.

One of its signature programs,AdCamp, delivers a four-day immersive experiential program for under-served future advertising leaders, providing them with an intensive program to ensure they are "highly skilled, highly socialized and attuned to current cultural needs", as Pacheco emphasizes. The participants are given a unique glimpse into the working week of clients, media publishers, production and agencies.

To cap off the week-long program, each cohort solves a prototypical case study, representing real clients and then presents their recommendation to a panel of expert judges. This on-the-ground advertising leadership bootcamp provides students with the practical know-how of what it takes to listen to client needs, translate those needs into creative solutions and then importantly, pitch those ideas to a discerning audience with high expectations. The intensity of the experience, the depth of the friendships and rigor of the coaching ensures a healthy and robust pipeline of diverse talent is continually entering the industry.

Pay It Forward Generously

One of the most powerful ignitors of diversity occurs when a program creates a flywheel of generosity as past graduates pay it forward. Pacheco highlights the important role that fifty of his promising multicultural students from five years ago are now playing as mentors, coaches and advisors to the next cohort. As diverse talent ascends the corporate ladder, the impetus to lift, empower and open doors for the next generation of diverse leaders is a propelling force that the industry needs to perpetuate. Pacheco truly lives by example as he mentors two students in Texas and New England every month via Zoom - guiding, inspiring and challenging them to see the possibilities and to keep striving -- exactly as his early mentors did for him. He celebrates when one of the AAF graduates, Geno Schellenberger, who while looking for a job, shows ingenuity and determination, by starting a podcast onBreaking & Enteringinto the industry.

Experience Drives Possibility

Inspired by the words of the great poet and creative, John Keats, "Nothing ever becomes real 'til it is experienced", we are able to appreciate the magic of the AAF journey that thousands of students have embarked on since its founding. Pacheco enthusiastically shares an anecdote of how empowered the AdCamp's students were after attending a Pandora Studio recording session with a well-known, Instagram-worthy hip hop artist from New York. What may have seemed like a fanciful delusion of being a music producer suddenly became very real and tangible -- taking the mystery out of our ambitions brings us closer to it each day. And that is the real power of what the AAF creates -- life-changing experiences for diverse youth, that very often our own privileged sons and daughters, with easy access to our inner industry circle, take for granted. Pacheco goes as far as advocating for a "Take your Diverse Friend to Work Day" - to level the playing field and unlock the door to new opportunities for connection, learning and inspiration.

Our industry is adept at storylines, taglines and bylines -- we are great at narrative and creating accolades and hoopla. As Pacheco diligently reminds us that all that can be "superfluous if it is not truly meaningful".

When pressed on how to make it meaningful, he shared the Three Es of great storytelling and what the industry urgently needs: empathy to stand in other's shoes; empowerment to believe in the impossible; energy to persevere in the face of defeat. As the industry comes together on November 18 to celebrate theAAF Hall of Achievement Awards, where five of the eight honorees are people of color, we are reminded not only of the economic force that the Ad industry represents but most importantly the enduring legacy of our industry that impacts the lives that are touched and the stories that are told. To Pacheco and the dedicated team at the AAF, it is simply following the motto he fondly remembers from his youth visiting the public parks of Tennessee, "try and leave this world better than you found it" -- words that inspired a young Memphis kid who ardently believed in theCrayola of possibilities -- and still does.

To support the AAF High School AdCamp, contribute to the Advancing Diversity Education Fund. For more info on AAF AdCamp link to the site here and watch the video for real life examples.

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