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What I Learned About DEI While Launching the Media Cause Marketing Fellowship Program

As the Black Lives Matter protests erupted this past June, many companies reflected on their diversity challenges. At Media Cause, we made some big commitments, including a $100,000 investment in building a Marketing Fellowship program with the goal of helping to address the lack of diversity, not just at our company but in the advertising industry as a whole. If you’re not aware, the advertising and marketing industry is overwhelmingly white. A white person is 2.67 times more likely than a black person to work in advertising and marketing, so it’s an uphill battle to change your own company’s diversity unless you have a training program that allows you to hire someone without any prior experience. This is why we knew we needed to take bold actions with a commitment to bring new people into the industry. After several months of planning, we’re excited to announce that our Marketing Fellowship is underway with a pilot program that includes three Fellows and three Mentors starting September 15th!

While we are just getting started, this has already been a tremendous learning experience. I wanted to share six important lessons learned thus far in the hopes of helping other business leaders, department heads, or recruiting managers who are working to improve diversity, equity, or inclusion.

1. Race or ethnicity cannot be a factor in any hiring process

OK, this seems really obvious. Addressing racial discrimination is the precise reason why we created our Fellowship program, to begin with. What I mean is bias is a really complex issue, and even positive biases are bad. Hiring someone just because they are Black, Latino or any particular race is not a good DEI practice. Favoring anyone in the hiring process because of what they look like is not just unfair to the other candidates, but also it’s a form of tokenism that is also unfair to the people you hire. Everyone deserves to be hired on their own merits, tokenism flies in the face of that. If someone feels like they were hired to fill a quota rather than for their skill set, then there’s a good chance that they won’t stay at your company for too long. This type of practice might change your company’s short term diversity statistics but it certainly doesn’t help with equity and inclusion which are equally important variables of the DEI equation.

Hiring to improve our diversity without favoring diverse candidates first became a clear challenge when I began to write the Fellowship job description. Our publicly stated goal of the program was to address the lack of diversity at our agency, as well as the marketing industry as a whole. But as I wrote the job description it seemed wrong to even mention the word diversity whatsoever. We wanted students who applied to know if hired, they were being brought on for their skill sets and interest in marketing, not because they weren’t white. After seeking advice from others that I trusted on the topic of DEI, they confirmed what I was feeling.

So, how could we create a program designed to solve diversity issues without talking about diversity? The solution we came up with was to get to the root of the problem: Opportunity. The reason why many candidates have a harder job landing their marketing first job starts with the lack of opportunities that they are given. To solve the problem of diversity in our industry we need to make entry-level jobs more accessible to a more diverse candidate pool.

2. Opportunity and accessibility are different but equally important

Speaking from personal experience, one of our biggest historical challenges in hiring is that we need to bring people on who can do the job on day one. As a small business serving the nonprofit sector, we can’t afford to train people for several months on their day-to-day responsibilities because we need to put them to work. Once they’re up and running, we have plenty of opportunities for professional development, but that happens as we serve our clients. This reality has created a scenario where people without enough experience don’t have a real opportunity.

Larger agencies certainly have training programs and internships, but the industry as a whole has a considerable number of small businesses due to the fact that it’s relatively easy to launch a service-based business compared to many other industries. You don’t need a physical location or any investment in technology, it just takes some people with the right skills and a client or two to get started. That’s how we started Media Cause and bootstrapped our way to 35 employees. There are tens of thousands of firms like us, making up a good portion of the marketing services landscape, that don’t have training programs or the ability to hire people who don’t have experience.

Creating more opportunities for more people is precisely why we’re building this program with scale in mind from the beginning. However, the simple fact that sheer fact that we’re creating more marketing opportunities that say NO EXPERIENCE NECESSARY doesn’t make them accessible to everyone. There are some very important factors to consider when thinking about how to make their positions accessible to the communities that are under-represented in the marketing industry. Of course, it starts with paying people as much (ideally more) as they could make in an entry-level job in retail, food service, or driving for Uber/Lyft. Yes, of course, candidates are receiving valuable experience and training and all of the other great things that internships provide, but these types of unpaid or underpaid programs are particularly unfair to minority candidates. Not making enough money to pay bills simple isn’t an option for certain people. Not everyone can live at home for free room and board while they gain experience working as an unpaid (or even a minimum wage) apprentice. For this reason, we set the pay for our Fellowship program at $20/hr with a guaranteed 40 hours per week, approximately ~$3,500 per month.

Accessibility goes beyond paying someone a livable wage. In today’s COVID remote work environment, we also learned that not all job candidates have the ability to work from home. So many of us take the internet for granted, but even today only around 2/3rds of US homes have broadband connections at home. And this number is significantly lower for Black and Hispanic households.

Graph of home broadband usages by race

We learned that we needed to make it clear in the job description we would pay for high-speed internet at home for the length of the program. Furthermore, we decided to not just give all Fellows a new laptop, but also a 27” monitor to increase productivity, and a $500 budget to improve their home-work set up. Even with these additional items and allowances, we know a work from home program isn’t accessible to everyone but it will make a big difference, opening up the opportunity for a lot of people and putting them in a better position to succeed, which is the real goal.

3. Training is essential but experience is more valuable

Online training as an industry has exploded in the last decade. There are so many opportunities for people to learn digital marketing and the competition has driven the cost down incredibly low. There are plenty of free options available although the best training still comes at a cost in most cases. At Media Cause we use training platforms such Google Ad & Analytics Certifications, Facebook Blueprint, and Twitter’s Flight School to ensure all of our team members are up to speed on all of the latest offerings. We also use a number of third party online training progress to cross-train team members who want to learn new skills and platforms. While these online courses are open to everyone, we have found that they are helpful to teach people the basic mechanics but that you don’t actually learn how to do digital marketing until you start doing it. The essential experience needed to do the job can only be gained by real-world learning by doing.

We took a step back to see how we could both best-serve our new Fellows and our larger client base in the nonprofit sector. As a cause-based agency, we have a steady flow of clients in need of help that can’t afford to hire us. How to do the most good was easy to see – we broke with our business model and brought on a handful of pro-bono clients in the racial justice space, allowing our Fellows to get real-world experience under the guidance of their Mentors, and the nonprofits to get the advertising services to uplift their critical messages.

4. Where you recruit REALLY matters

Like many businesses, Media Cause offers a referral bonus for employees who recruit their friends to join. What we didn’t realize until recently is that employee referral bonuses are not good for businesses that are aiming to improve their diversity, as each of our networks tend to have a higher degree of similarity with ourselves. We realized early on in the process of building our Fellowship program that we needed to focus on recruiting a larger candidate pool in order for the program to have the effect that we wanted it to have on our diversity.

Instead of relying mostly on LinkedIn and Glassdoor as we’ve done in the past, we decided to expand to new job boards including Indeed, WayUp, and JobRapido. Rather than posting the Fellowship on our own social media channels and asking our employees to share with their personal networks, we sought out partnerships with organizations that focused on diversity and workforce development. Early on in this process, we were lucky to connect with an incredible nonprofit called COOP Careers. COOP’s mission is to overcome underemployment and does this by training potential job candidates to better prepare for the digital economy. They were willing to share our Fellowship with candidates within their network which led to an influx of incredibly talented individuals that we would have not reached out to our existing networks.  These new tactics made a huge difference in the diversity of our candidate pool. We also uncovered a ton of addition to the job boards and potential partnerships that we plan on leveraging as we scale this Fellowship program in early 2021.

5. The blinder the better

One of the stranger parts of building this Fellowship program was that all interviews were conducted over the phone versus video call. The adjustment wasn’t tough and the benefit of not knowing what the candidates looked like was a great feeling for our hiring team. Even with the intent of hiring for diversity, we wanted to make sure we hired the best candidates period, regardless of what they looked like.

In addition to phone interviews, we also made the commitment to not look up candidates on LinkedIn prior to our interview. Although, full confession, both members of the hiring team did look up the first candidate to apply on LinkedIn and saw their picture but shortly after we spoke to each other and agreed that we shouldn’t do this again and stuck to it for the remaining 100+ candidates who applied.

Another blind tactic to consider is hiding candidate names from the job screening processes. In our case, as a small business with only two people involved in the hiring process for this program, it was too difficult to remove names from the process altogether but for larger teams, I do see the benefits that this additional step would provide.

6. Education is important but can’t be a limiting factor

In speaking with several advisors during the recruitment process they asked whether or not we were going to have an education requirement for the Fellowship. Our initial position was that we should have no education requirement whatsoever and that needed to be clear in the job description so that candidates who didn’t attend college still feel encouraged to apply. Education, in many cases, isn’t an option for everyone. Four-year universities are expensive, there are not enough scholarships available to everyone that needs one. While community colleges are much more affordable they still aren’t realistic for people who need to work in order to support their family or help out at home.

With a focus on providing an opportunity for those who don’t have the same access to marketing jobs, we knew that we couldn’t require a college degree.  However, we also felt that it was important not to downplay the accomplishment of a college degree for those candidates that have completed college. Graduating from any college isn’t an easy feat. Especially, if it required starting in a community college, working throughout school, taking classes at night, or juggling real-life responsibilities and studying for exams.

To strike a balance, we wrote that the Fellowship was open to “candidates with all educational backgrounds, including no college attended” but we did use educational accomplishments as a factor in our hiring decisions. To create an inclusive level playing field, we didn’t look at education whatsoever in our initial screen when deciding who to interview. The initial screen was entirely based on the candidate’s cover letter, where we asked them to introduce themselves and tell us why they matched the criteria we were looking for.

In order to evaluate candidates we are looking at the following qualities:

      • Ambitious self-starters with a hunger to learn new skills
      • Creative thinkers who don’t settle for the status quo
      • Data-driven and analytical; ability to research, test, and optimize results
      • Well organized; process and detail-oriented
      • Excellent verbal and written communicators
      • Problem solvers with a positive can-do attitude
      • Motivated by our mission to help nonprofits make a greater impact

Each candidate’s cover letter was the sole factor in deciding to interview them, not past work experience and not education. However during the interviews when we got to know them, it provided a great opportunity to highlight educational accomplishments that showed us they were ready to take on the role or share other accomplishments that exhibited the same skill sets and character needed to succeed in a marketing career. The three Fellows joining our pilot program all have very different educational experiences, but all of them were equally impressive and give us a lot of faith that the next generation or marketers is going to be incredible if we can figure out how to give more of them an opportunity to put their talents to work.

(We are currently building a larger Fellowship program with a targeted January 2021 launch date, using this first pilot program as the foundation and test ground. If you’re interested in applying for the program, sign up for the Media Cause newsletter to be the first to find out when applications open up. We are also looking for agency partners who are interested in hiring entry-level candidates next year, training partners, and MarTech companies that want to collaborate as well as foundations that want to help scale this initiative. If you’re interested in exploring a partnership opportunity please contact me directly, [email protected] )

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