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Account manager Nicole Parrott-Wilson was shocked when she first started to work at a Twin Cities advertising firm and attend marketing mixers two years ago.

She was often one of the only people of color at the events, a common occurrence in the advertising industry that is infamous for its diversity issues in creative agencies.

“I was immediately like, ‘Wow. This is very, very white,’ ” said Parrott-Wilson, who identifies as black. “Across the board, it was pretty monolithic as far as race.”

According to a recently released report by the BrandLab, a Twin Cities-based nonprofit, 10 percent of employees at Twin Cities advertising agencies are people of color, an increase from the less than 8 percent that made up agencies in 2016 and the more than 6 percent in 2014.

Despite the increase, the percentage of people of color in agencies is still only half as much as the 20 percent of people of color overall in Minnesota. It’s also behind the nearly 23 percent of the broader national workforce in advertising, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data from 2014.

For leaders of the BrandLab, the mission is to support young people from diverse ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds who pursue careers in the marketing industry. The growth is a positive sign that more intentional diversity and inclusion initiatives are making an impact.

“The dialogue is elevating awareness,” said Raquel Melo, the BrandLab’s new board chair and vice president of innovation and new business development at Land O’Lakes. “Can we attribute it solely to the BrandLab? No, obviously we are trying. … I think as an industry we are thinking and wrestling with these issues on a national level.”

Out of the more than 40 agencies that participated in the BrandLab’s most recent “State of the Industry” report, 93 percent said diversifying their workforce is important to them. However, only 67 percent of ad shops have initiatives to actively expand their workplace diversity and only 36 percent say they were effective at increasing diversity last year.

Much of the change in how an agency addresses diversity starts with getting buy-in from the firm’s leadership, said Ellen Walthour, chief executive of the BrandLab.

“The people that are really taking action are the people that really have the power to hire,” she said.

Diversity matters in advertising, not just as a matter of equity but also as a necessity to properly serve diverse markets, Melo said. In 2016, Golden Valley-based General Mills, one of the nation’s biggest advertisers, made headlines when it set diversity guidelines for its ad agency partners.

“The future is made up of diverse communities with tremendous buying power and we have to figure out how we are navigating that as a business community. … Diversity very simply is good business sense,” Melo said. “If you do what you did yesterday, you will not survive.”

The BrandLab, which was founded by Olson agency leader John Olson in 2007, has worked to introduce local, diverse students to the advertising industry for years. In its most recent annual report from 2016-2017, the BrandLab said it cooperated with 10 high schools and served close to 700 students through its classroom program in which students learn about media, marketing and different aspects of production as well as a new two-day accelerated learning pilot called TBL Spark.

Many marketing agencies help host paid summer internships through the BrandLab. The BrandLab also provides thousands of dollars in college scholarships each year.

In its “Fearless” workshops, events and consulting sessions, BrandLab staff and volunteers help partners have frank discussions about race, diversity and inclusion.

“It’s not just a kumbaya,” said Parrott-Wilson, who helps lead some “Fearless” training sessions and works at local legacy agency Carmichael Lynch. “The truth is change like that is uncomfortable. … We’ve got to get through those difficult things to evolve the industry.”

In April, the BrandLab expanded its programming to Kansas City and had its first group of interns this past summer. The BrandLab is aiming to have as many as 50 interns in its Kansas City cohort in its third year. There also has been interest in expanding programming to Chicago but funding has not been secured.

BrandLab leadership wants to partner with the American Association of Advertising Agencies to do a larger national study on the state of diversity in the industry, Walthour said.

BrandLab suggested that agencies focus on not only hiring people of color but also making sure those who were hired at entry level are able to move up the ranks. Other action items for agencies included enacting specific policies for hiring practices and measurable goals for diversifying the workplace, exploring other avenues for talent and understanding how to write job descriptions to attract diverse talent.

Nicole Norfleet • 612-673-4495 Twitter: @nicolenorfleet