Well ahead of its time, the American Advertising Federation's Most Promising Multicultural Students program has for the past two decades endeavored to identify and engage talented and diverse students as they embark on advertising careers. As its annual event in New York City — this year on Feb 10–13 — approaches, we spent time with AAF CEO Steve Pacheco to get his thoughts on the state of diversity and inclusion in advertising and why it matters.
Philip McKenzie: The AAF is building toward a new future and a new decade. Why does the Most Promising Multicultural Students program remain a significant focus for the organization?
Steve Pacheco: The AAF has a proud history via our Mosaic Center for Multiculturalism, generally, and the Most Promising program, specifically, of developing talent and encouraging young professionals to not only pursue a career in advertising, but also engage in mentorship, pursue leadership roles, and have the ability to access lifelong learning. Building bridges to future leaders is critically important to us organizationally.
The Most Promising Multicultural Student Program acts as a conduit to the entire advertising industry because we have members at ad agencies, media companies, and brands. Our members work in many fields, so we have the depth and breadth to support diversity uniquely. We consider the Most Promising Student program to be a bellwether for us; it creates a critical entry point for young people to join our industry, and we can support them through their journey as advertising professionals in whatever capacity they choose to pursue.
McKenzie: This program is very competitive. How do you identify the students that are accepted?
Pacheco: We are seeking to attract the 50 most promising students across the nation that we can highlight during our three-day event in New York City, which will be February 10–13 this year. They get a chance to meet with recruiters and organizations that are looking for talent. They also get an opportunity to polish their skillset and receive some [coaching] for interviews and preparation for what will likely become their first professional job in the industry.
Most of them are self-identified as pursuing advertising or marketing tracks at their university or college. We also have a vast network of faculty throughout our extensive college network that assists in finding students. So, we cast our net fairly wide to make sure the quality of the students remains high and that the program is seen as a leader for all of our stakeholders.
McKenzie: How does the AAF measure the long-term success of the program?
Pacheco: The way we measure success is twofold: One, we at the AAF want to create brand ambassadors who are fully equipped to compete and thrive in the world of advertising. The fact that they go through such a rigorous vetting and the AAF endorses them as exceptional talent means it will reflect on the organization, as well. Two, all of these young people will become change agents in their own regard. As they become valuable assets in organizations, they will be changing the landscape wherever they go. Their creativity and spark will demonstrate the value of diverse and inclusive environments.
McKenzie: How does retention factor into the AAF's goals? It is one thing to join an industry and quite another to stay engaged and have a long career.
Pacheco: We maintain a database of all the people who have come through our program over the years. We often feature them in our social media channels and amplify their own. We check in regularly and want to make sure we are providing continual support and mentoring. This is about giving access to an entire community and maintaining loyalty between all parties. The AAF wants to be in a position to provide advice, support, intel, and anything else that might be needed to make sure we are invested in the long-term success of our program alums.
McKenzie: Why [do] diversity and inclusion remain such a consistent challenge?
Pacheco: The advertising industry has always been made up of diverse personalities, and to be successful in advertising, you're going to have to get along with people who have different viewpoints and backgrounds. There isn't a campaign that gets made in a vacuum. Much of the advertising work we see around us is expensive and a high-stakes gamble for marketers, agencies, and brands. The best results will ultimately be reached by having a diverse team.
The AAF continues to make the point that diversity and inclusion are about having the strongest team that can drive results for all parties involved. The fact that it remains a challenge doesn't alter our commitment to these ideas. I've learned throughout my 30-year professional career that the best work has come out of diverse teams that can give you a full worldview. The AAF shares that perspective, and that is what we advocate.
McKenzie: What is the future of the Most Promising Student program?
Pacheco: To be candid, our biggest challenge is funding and allocation of resources. Our program is capped at 50 students because that is what we can afford, but I am sure there are at least 50 other students who are deserving of this opportunity. Our value proposition is that we are providing organizations with talent that is ready to contribute and add value from day one. The more we grow, the more we prove that model and show a significant benefit to all of the organizations that support us.
I am passionate about advertising. I am passionate about the work we do. If we can get the same attention and resources committed to diversity and inclusion that is allocated to more self-congratulatory awards, I believe, as an industry, we would be a stronger place. That is the future we want to be help shape with the Most Promising Student program.
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