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In advertising, marketing diversity needs a boost in Tampa Bay, nationally

From left, Swim Digital marketing owner Trimeka Benjamin discusses the broad lack of diversity in advertising and marketing with 22 Squared copywriter Luke Sokolewicz, University of Tampa advertising/PR professor Jennifer Whelihan, Rumbo creative director George Zwierko and Nancy Vaughn of the White Book Agency. The group recently met at The Bunker in Ybor City.
Published Jul. 22, 2017

TAMPA — Trimeka Benjamin was focused on a career in broadcast journalism when she entered Bethune-Cookman University.

But when Benjamin discovered the beginning salaries for journalists, she switched her major to business.

Today, Benjamin is the chief executive owner of Swim Digital Group, a Tampa-based marketing company.

And after a spin in corporate America – including a stint with NASCAR – Benjamin is on a mission to pull up more women into marketing.

"I'm a huge proponent of women having the same opportunities as men in the industry and there's a huge disparity right now," she said.

For generations, the offices of advertising and marketing agencies have been overwhelmingly staffed with white men.

To help change that, Miami Ad School recently announced that it will offer $200,000 in scholarships to minorities. It's said to be the largest scholarship and mentorship program in the country for minorities who want a creative career in advertising.

It's too early to surmise how effective the school's initiative will be. But local marketing professionals like Benjamin and Nancy Vaughn of the White Book Agency say it's a welcomed sign of change.

At the behest of the Tampa Bay Times, the women recently joined with peers Jennifer Whelihan, Luke Sokolewicz, and George Zwierko to discuss improving diversity in the advertising and marketing industry.

Whelihan, who teaches advertising at the University of Tampa, says there's no shortage of women in her classes.

But those numbers don't match the women represented at agency offices, she said.

"(Creative fields) are dominated by women at the university level but men rule the sector," she said. "When we get to leadership positions, where are the women?"

With an estimated 3 percent of woman at the helm of leadership in creative agencies across the nation, it's time for a shakeup starting at the top, Vaughn said.

"I think it's an organization thing," she said. "It takes brands putting agencies to task and knowing the value of having female voices at the table."

One brand already doing this is General Mills. Last year, the big food company and one of the country's largest advertisers told creative agencies it hires it wants to see staffs that are at least half women and 20 percent people of color.

Executives say their goal is to have the people who create General Mills's advertising reflect the consumers that buy its products.

Brands like General Mills get it. But many others are not having those crucial conversations about how increased representation of women and minorities within their ranks and with the partners with which they are affiliated affect the bottom line, Vaughn said.

Sokolewicz, a copywriter with 22 Squared, agreed.

"It's a business imperative," he said. "If you don't have diversity, you won't have that perspective."

Agencies need to implement creative techniques to attract more women and minority candidates during the recruitment process, he said.

Benjamin agreed.

"It's not about going to the black recruiting day," she said.

Ultimately, a diverse staff is better equipped to craft messages from a multicultural perspective that will resonate with targeted consumers. Pepsi tried to craft such a spot featuring Kylie Jenner as a peacemaker, but opponents widely criticized the ad for trivializing the Black Lives Matter movement and the beverage company quickly pulled it and issued an apology.

Zwierko, creative director at Tampa creative firm Rumbo, said such missteps occur when diverse insight is missing.

"It says a lack of understating on the agency's part," he said.

Agencies must do some self-examination and challenge each other to do better, Benjamin said.

"What's our responsibility in this?" she said. "What role do we play in being part of the solution?"

It also means being willing to have conversations about diversity that may be uncomfortable, Sokolewicz said.

Tough talks are necessary to effect change, Vaughn said.

"If you're in a comfort zone, you're not growing," she said.

Contact Kenya Woodard at hillsnews@tampabay.com.

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