A new partnership between Solve's Minneapolis ad agency and one of the nation's 107 historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) aims to introduce more students of color to the creative field of advertising.

The partnership, which grew after the police killing of George Floyd, pairs Morgan State University — an East Coast school with no advertising chops — with an award winning agency looking for a pipeline to more diverse hiring.

The idea came to John Colasanti, who founded Solve in Minneapolis nine years ago after career stops in Chicago, Detroit and Boston. Solve's staff is 84% white and its leadership team has no people of color. Nationwide, only 0.7% of ad and marketing executives are Black and 5.8% of all ad staffers are Black, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and the American Association of Advertising Agencies.

Determined to change that, Solve this summer signed a diversity pledge along with Carmichael Lynch, Colle McVoy, Periscope, and 30 other Minnesota ad firms. The agency, which lends creative muscle to brands such as Sunoco, Porsche, Bentley, American Standard, Raymond James and True Value, is now bringing its experience and new online classes to Morgan State for the first time in the hopes of "trying to a build an [employment] pipeline and increase diverse perspectives here," Colasanti said.

After nationwide protests and COVID-19 shutdowns this summer, Colasanti kept thinking of the pipeline and "why there aren't more people of color in the advertising world. Wouldn't it be interesting if we can work with a school that may not have an ad program?"

He contacted the communications deans at 35 HBCUs, offering to teach advertising classes via Zoom. One school was eager. "I don't want this just to be dating. I want this to be a marriage," Morgan's Strategic Communications Department chairman, David Marshall, told Colasanti.

Marshall wants the first ad class at Morgan to morph into project work, internships, advertising degrees and solid careers in the creative field for his students. He wants an accredited advertising degree program at the school by 2022. Solve's work at Morgan is a first step.

"The goal is to say to our students, 'There is a wonderful opportunity for you to participate in the field of advertising that we have not — heretofore — been able to offer you," said Marshall who landed one of his first jobs out of college in Duluth. There, he worked for three years as the only Black TV reporter at KBJR in the 1990s. It proved a positive work experience. Now he's excited to introduce Morgan students to a Minnesota ad firm wanting to invest in them.

As for Colasanti, "When we can get on an airplane again, I want the students from Maryland to come to Minneapolis to Solve," Colasanti said. "Selfishly, we want to be able to get great people out of this."

Candyce Burke, a Morgan senior and communications major, is enthusiastic about what Solve brings to her school. "Baltimore is very far from Minneapolis, so reaching out to us here [means something]," she said. Because of limited funding, "HBCUs often don't have the same opportunities or resources as some other, bigger schools. So, it's great when people want to give students an inside look at what is going on in actual agency life."

Each Tuesday, Colasanti or two other Solve executives teach Burke and 11 other Morgan journalism and communications majors. Topics include: What is advertising? Using emotion in brand positioning. How to bring an idea to life. Using data to drive brand strategies. And what it's like to work in an ad agency.

Last month, students worked on a Sunoco gasoline ad campaign with a pretend budget of $3 million. Their job: Decide which Solve ads to place and where — Facebook, TV, movies or billboards? Which neighborhoods? How many eyeballs could they reach?

"Getting this taste of the real world got them excited," Colasanti said. "Now, they understand that this is something I can do. That is the takeaway I have been getting from them."

Morgan Assistant Professor Dr. Joonwoo Moon watched as Solve employees whetted the career appetites of his students. Now some students are talking "about how they really, really want to get a job in an advertising agency," Moon said.

After Floyd's death and outcries for racial equity and inclusion, other advertising outlets also sought HBCUs. Days after Solve and Morgan State connected, the American Advertising Federation (AAF) also called Morgan, wanting to create an AAF student chapter. Now, an advertising club meets weekly at Morgan with funding from AAF member The Trade Desk in New York.

With AAF, students can gain industry credentials, compete for internships and attend networking conferences.

Students "have been so enthusiastic," said Melony Hughes, senior manager of AAF's Mosaic Center for multiculturalism after meeting with the Morgan students last month. For AAF, "this is the first HBCU-focused initiative we've had," Hughes said. "HBCUs for Advertising was created to eliminate the financial and operational barriers for the students at HBCUs and their barriers into the advertising industry."

Dee DePass • 612-673-7725