How to Recruit and Retain Diverse Marketing Talent

By Joanna Valente


Hiring diverse talent is crucial for brands as a first step to developing inclusive work environments and advertisements, but retaining that talent is just as important — and cannot be underestimated. It should be part of every company's mission to foster a diverse and inclusive work community that is supportive and agile.

However, many companies are struggling to find and retain talent in today's climate. To combat this, marketers need to understand what young talent and prospective employees need and want, and find ways to provide support and solutions.

This can happen by creating employee programs and resources, revamping outdated hiring and retaining practices, and conducting industry research and applying insights into actions. In a recent episode of ANA's Champions of Growth Podcast, Matthew Schwartz, host of the podcast, was joined by Gordon McLean, president and CEO of the ANA Educational Foundation (AEF), and Elliot Lum, executive VP of growth and community at the ANA.

McLean and Lum discussed initiatives "designed to bolster the appeal of a career in marketing and advertising" and explored the CMO's role "to expand the horizon when it comes to building talent for a post-digital age."

Key takeaways from the podcast:

  • Younger generations are looking for meaningful work, not just secure jobs.
  • Marketers must create an inclusive methodology to study the current climate and trends, so they can use data that leads to tangible industry action.
  • Companies need to cast a wider net geographically when it comes to hiring talent more inclusively (such as interviewing and hiring remotely to do this), building more dynamic work culture.
  • It's a marketing imperative to foster an environment where new talent feels like they belong, and are connected to the organization and their teams.
  • Marketers need to create mentorship programs with new and/or entry-level employees to develop growth and distinct growth paths.
  • Professors and students need to be given access to the same knowledge and resources as marketers to bring real-world experience onto campus, thus, bridging together industry and academic gaps.

You can read a shortened version of the transcript below, which has been edited for length and clarity — and is an excerpt of the longer podcast episode. Listen to the entire podcast here.

Matthew Schwartz, ANA's Champions of Growth Podcast host: Gordon, I'd like to start with you. What are marketers looking for in potential talent these days? What's changing?

Gordon McLean: We've done extensive series of research; we call it actually the Talent Disconnect studies and we've done it every year for the last really three years. And what we've found is marketers are really looking for three things. The first is critical thinking, which is really what going to university is all about. But it's unique from the perspective now that needs to be both qualitative and quantitative. With the importance of data and analytics, we really need future talent who can put those two things together to come to conclusions. So that's number one.

Second, not surprisingly, leadership potential. But that's also a unique type of leadership potential because it needs to be the kind that's both collaborative, that can work across all disciplines but also really needs to be a little more risk tolerant because that's what we're actually looking for in our future leaders.

And then the third, which I think was a little more surprising is actually the cultural EQ or the emotional quotient. This is really important right now, given it is so crucial to succeeding in the diverse, multidisciplinary teams that these graduates are going to be asked to work on.

These are the three criteria that we use to select our marketing and advertising education (MADE) interns. We apply that to every single one of these interns; we have over 3,000 applicants, and we get down to about 150. I will tell you, this is a very impressive group of young, future leaders. And we have no worries about the future of talent — all we've got to do is nurture them and keep them.

Matthew Schwartz: Flip side of the question, Gordon, how are student's expectations changing when it comes to assessing a career in marketing or advertising?

Whether the creative side or the sales side, because let's face it, the industry is the subject of a lot of skepticism in which these prospects have been conditioned by. What are your thoughts there?

Gordon McLean: Actually, the tables have turned. We were just having a discussion with a group of CMOs and one of them made the point that when it comes to entry-level talent, we are no longer interviewing them, they're interviewing us.

Matthew Schwartz: Is that a fundamental change, Gordon?
Gordon McLean: It is. This is not just about looking for a secure, well-paying job that may have career potential. And that really leads me to the other thing, fundamentally it's a change in our business in many respects but by far the most important change in expectations is that students are looking for much more than just that secure, well-paying job. The way we've had it described by students is we are looking for meaningful work — and work that makes a difference.

And also, interesting enough, they are still interested in security. They're looking not just for jobs but long-term careers. And so the mission and the purpose of the company they work for becomes critically important. And if you can't articulate your company's role and its contribution to society, then that's a non-starter, they're just going to move on to the next perspective employer. So, we talk often in the ANA about the importance of being a force for growth and a force for good, for students, actually, the force for good is far more important.

Matthew Schwartz: In terms of DEI, how do we go from the theoretical to the practical in this?

Eliott Lum: I think a lot of it is transparency and visibility and being able to understand collectively how are we doing as an industry recruiting at the entry level and mid-level? And the ANA, as you know, publishes a report every single year that represents its board of directors, that represents its membership. The sample size though is small and to have transparency around how that recruiting pipeline looks like, similar to what the technology industry does so that we can make progress. 

Matthew Schwartz: This sort of plays into what we're talking about. The ANA Educational Foundation released a study titled My Voice Matters, linking inclusion to business growth. What were the studies major takeaways for CMOs?

Eliott Lum: So, where that study originated from, and I still remember this from a professor, his name is Douglas Davis said one of the CUNY schools that focus on technology. And we were talking about how we solve the diversity problem for the industry. And the one thing that he said to me was, "Make sure you can answer the question, do I belong here?"

And so every voice matters. And the key takeaways of the study is not necessarily the eight highlights that we can go through. It's the methodology that we use to approach it. So, how do you measure inclusion when business decisions are being made? How do you measure equity when you're in a company and trying to figure out how to progress your career, how do you feel a sense of belonging in the industry?

When you look at the data, when you compare white, non-Hispanic with ethnic minority, there's a lot of statistical differences in each of those different categories. And for us to get to real prescriptive solutions, we ultimately need a greater sample size and greater collaboration, like what I talked about in terms of transparency. Which is why we're collaborating with groups like SeeHer, as Gordon mentioned, AIMM (the Alliance for Inclusive and Multicultural Marketing), the Global Growth Council and other trade bodies, so that we can again find great data that ultimately leads us to collective industry action.

Matthew Schwartz: And Gordon, do companies need to start reaching out to other colleges and universities, such as historically Black colleges and universities, visual and design schools, film schools, journalism schools, when recruiting marketing prospects? What are some of the best practices to pivot?

Gordon McLean: Just to start with the simple answer to your question it's, yes. We have a rallying cry in the AEF and it echoes around the ANA and that is that top talent comes from everywhere. And one of the things that we need to do as an industry is break out of the old patterns, and I don't mean this pejoratively, with the same old schools and alumni networks that we routinely have gone to. We really need to think differently based on the challenges.

First, obviously we need to prioritize diverse schools and diverse students, but we need to cast the net wider. We need to do it geographically, we need to go to areas where, if you're here in New York, you're very Northeastern-focused, but we need to look right across the U.S. (or even globally).

But we also must think about it economically as well, because oftentimes those students who have been disadvantaged don't have the same visibility and don't have the same opportunity. And those are things that we really need to advance.

A little while ago, we were talking to a CMO and he told us he had job descriptions for 40 different marketing functions in his department. You don't come into a marketing department anymore and just become an assistant product manager — you have to come at it from every single angle in terms of what makes up the world of modern marketing and cutting edge marketing.

So yes, we need to be in marketing schools. Yes, we need to be in communications and advertising schools. But we cannot lose sight of the fact that we have got to be in the humanities and social sciences. We also, critically important, need to be in STEM, given the critical importance of data and analytics and how we bake that right at the heart of everything that we do. It's a challenge.

Matthew Schwartz: And with more people working from home, of course, and looking for work from home due to the pandemic, what are brands to boost their recruitment efforts remotely?

I've been hearing mixed reports that some really like the Zoom interview and other studies, reports, anecdotally, where they're missing out in terms of missing out that opportunity to meet someone and pressing the flesh.

Eliott Lum: I think one of the things that we learned from one of our member companies, Clorox; the technology is there to have these individual discussions via interview, and it makes it more accessible, convenient. Hopefully great for the candidate as well, just from a perspective of ease and convenience.

What the real question is, is, how do you recruit in this environment in an innovative way when everybody else is doing the same thing? So when you see a Clorox, for instance, collaborate with their employee resource groups to be able to target certain kinds of employees that they want to bring into their organization. Whether it be more Black employees or Asian employees, they have built a really innovative recruiting system that incentivizes those groups who want to be business drivers. They want to be community centers for sure but key business drivers that acquires great talent for their organization.

So, you see a lot of companies trying to think out of the box in terms of how they're going about recruiting, again, taking this marketing driven approach to recruiting.

Gordon McLean: The recruiting of entry-level talent virtually during COVID, and I'm sure post-COVID someday, is not the challenge. Gen Z has lived this way forever, they are used to it, and this is the way that they apply for our internship program.

The bigger challenge actually has been even retaining that entry-level talent. We've spoken to some companies who have hired individuals last [year], and those individuals are already gone — and they've never even met them within 18 months. This is the challenge.

The word "belonging" is very important because it's very challenging, whether it's about diverse teams or just teams in general, creating that sense of belonging in this environment, particularly with this generation. Because I have to tell you, they need jobs; this is my plea to the industry when you think about entry-level talent.

Last year was the absolute worst year: internship programs were canceled, job opportunities disappeared. It looks like we're going to have another one of those this year. I think we need to be cognizant of that fact. So finding those individuals, and getting them, [I'm] pretty confident we can get there. However, keeping them is going to be another thing.

Matthew Schwartz: In terms of retention where you're telling me, it's not even say 12, 18 months, it's perhaps a lot sooner where they vote with their feet?

Eliott Lum: On retention, it's often seen as drawing from the same pool of talent. And so what ends up happening is people ping-pong, and they get moved from one company to the next without growing the overall pie. 

Matthew Schwartz: Gordon, to backtrack on what you said a few moments ago and that we've discussed previously, is the sense of entitlement among some younger prospects an issue?

We're talking about a generation where everybody got an award or a trophy for coming in fourth and fifth place, which is frankly unlike previous generations. So how do CMOs approach this generation when it comes to nurturing entry-level employees, and really show tangible ways of that sense of belonging?

Gordon McLean: Well, you're not alone in that perception, Matthew, that's certainly true. However, I think any gen Zer out there that we speak to would genuinely bristle at the word "entitlement." And I think we have to put ourselves in their shoes, think of these students, most of them coming out of university with the highest debt load of any student generation ever. They've got a lot on their back. Many of them have seen brothers and sisters who came out through a post-recession in 2008 and 2009; they know that economic prospects are probably more limited than they were.

And then let's throw COVID on top of that. This is a challenging time. I think we're beyond entitlement and we're going to have to meet this graduating class on its own terms. [Retention has] always been the challenge.

But if I were to say the solution in a word, and it's not that simple, is mentoring. Mentoring is so powerful and we as an industry have so underutilized it. In the MADE Internship Program, we brought in 250 practitioners to mentor graduating students. They find it tremendously rewarding, but they also often think of it as reverse mentoring. I would bet you that the majority of those practitioners learned more from their mentees than the students did from them.

Matthew Schwartz: And do you think the industry, more across the board, is giving reverse mentoring short shrift?

Gordon McLean: I've always had a problem with this reverse mentoring or mentoring — it's all mentoring to me.

Matthew Schwartz: You don't want to categorize it?

Gordon McLean: I would not. I think once you have a relationship between a practitioner and a student, both benefit. And particularly those who are marketers or in agencies, what they do is they become much more culturally astute, and much more aware, quite frankly, of where our next consumers are coming from.

And [mentoring] breaks some of those preconceptions about entitlement because, to be honest, these students have got bigger things on their minds these days. [Mentoring] is such a powerful tool to create that sense of belonging that we have talked about over time.

Matthew Schwartz: I'd like to get from both of you to add and recommend to marketers when it comes to recruiting and nurturing the next generation of CMOs and marketers? Elliot, I'd like to start with you.

Eliott Lum: My piece of advice is that as CMOs or as marketing leaders, you have very limited time. And so wherever you want to give back, whether it be giving back to your school, whether it be mentoring, as Gordon mentioned, or whether it be offering a slot in your summer programs for our MADE interns.

There's a lot of different ways to give back — and I think the AEF accommodates all of that. We've certainly had questions, for instance, about how to become an adjunct professor. We certainly try to coordinate those conversations with current faculty based on where you'd like to teach. We're here to be a resource to you wherever you want to lean in.

Gordon McLean: The industry is rising to the challenge. It's really been very gratifying to watch; just last year, we introduced a program where we asked marketers and agencies to donate an ANA membership to a college or university. We've had close to 60 of those donated.

And so, what results from that? Professors and students have access to the same learning and the same tools as ANA member marketers. So when we talk about bringing real-world practice and learning onto campus, there's nothing more powerful. The industry is rallying. 

I'll leave you on the more sober note: We have to think about how we can bring even more urgency to advancing diversity in our industry. We set goals, we measure. I think [we're trying to achieve] a 40/60 equation.

Think about this, on campuses right now, the equation is actually very close to 55/45, with 55 percent Caucasian and 45 percent diverse. We're looking at 40 percent diverse, 60 percent Caucasian. And within a very few years, it's going to be 50/50. Even when we catch up, the world is going to be ahead of us. So, we've got to put the pedal to the metal on this.

Joanna Valente is a director of editorial and content development at ANA.

The views and opinions expressed in Industry Insights are solely those of the contributor and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the ANA or imply endorsement from the ANA.