As it works to boost diversity, Milwaukee’s creative industry focuses on young talent

A group of Milwaukee high school students recently participated in a two-week, paid internship with Hanson Dodge.
A group of Milwaukee high school students recently participated in a two-week, paid internship with Hanson Dodge.

Last updated on August 16th, 2021 at 01:59 pm

On a recent afternoon at Hanson Dodge’s Third Ward office, a leader with Johnsonville, LLC received some constructive feedback from a group of Milwaukee high school students. 

The students – a group representing seven local schools – presented marketing strategies to Jamie Schmelzer, senior director of strategic growth for the Sheboygan Falls-based sausage maker, focused on making the company more relevant to a younger, more diverse customer base. 

“Your target audience really seems like it’s for middle-aged dads, and not for everyone,” said Kyla Chester-Hopkins, a rising high school junior. 

Among her team’s ideas for changing those demographics: running a series of satirical ads, leaning into the company’s family-friendly brand, sponsoring back-to-school drives, donating products to food banks and hosting sweepstakes on college campuses. 

“Now you’re getting your product out there, feeding people in need, … and showing your values are in touch with a lot of other people’s values,” Chester-Hopkins said. 

For the 13 students, the presentations were the culmination of a two-week paid internship at the Milwaukee ad agency, a program designed to expose them to the field’s career options. 

The program traces back to a 2019 study highlighting racial disparities in Milwaukee’s largely white creative workforce. A lack of representation among people of color in arts, design, entertainment, sports and media professions exists in metros across the country, but Milwaukee’s gap is particularly stark. The report ranked it 40th out of the 50 largest metros for creative sector racial equity. 

Jamie Schmelzer of Johnsonville gives a presentation of his company to the student interns.
Jamie Schmelzer of Johnsonville gives a presentation of his company to the student interns.

For Milwaukee’s creative sector to mirror the wider metro workforce, 1,600 people of color would need to be hired. A group of industry representatives, including some of the city’s largest agencies, have set out to recruit diverse and minority creative talent to reach that goal by the end of the decade. 

Spearheaded by Greater Together – a nonprofit group founded by retired advertising executive Ken Hanson that promotes racial and economic equity in metro Milwaukee’s creative industries – the Greater Equity 2030 initiative is now a little under two years underway. 

The effort has gained some traction and a growing list of industry partners, though disruptions from the COVID-19 pandemic slowed some of its early momentum. 

“There’s a tremendous appetite within the creative economy to do this,” Hanson said. 

Hanson Dodge, which was co-founded by Ken Hanson, was among the initial partners to sign on to the Greater Equity 2030 pledge in 2019. The internship this summer – offered in partnership with Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design’s pre-college summer program – was a tangible step toward that commitment. 

As employers reckon with long-standing inequities in their industries and work to right those wrongs as a moral imperative, a strong business case can also be made for the creative industry’s push to diversify. Hanson said agencies are increasingly getting pressure from national clients – as well as from their own employees – to create diverse workplaces. 

“If you’re a national client and you have diversity as an objective, the businesses you want to do business with have to also,” Hanson said. “It’s not uncommon for businesses to basically say, ‘I need a certain amount of diversity on my team’ and … in Milwaukee, that’s been quite hard to deliver.” 

Take the high school students’ client Johnsonville, for example. The company’s primary customer base is between the ages of 35-64. Reaching the next generation of consumers – an increasingly diverse group – will require fresh marketing strategies, said Schmelzer.  

“Here’s this giant group of people that are younger and much more diverse than our consumer was 20 years ago. Our core consumers in 20 years aren’t going to look like our core consumers today or 20 years ago. So, help,” he said, describing the company’s assignment for the high school interns at Hanson-Dodge.  

For a company like Johnsonville, it is unlikely to have received the kind of candid critique it did from a group of novice marketing strategists, many of whom identify as BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of color).  

“The level of honesty that they brought to their perspective on our business and their feedback on some of the stuff we’re doing today was probably more than you would get from a traditional agency relationship; it’s just a fresh set of eyes,” Schmelzer said. 

Experiences like the Hanson Dodge internship could soon be more widely available in the city when The BrandLab, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit marketing organization, enters the Milwaukee market. 

The organization, which works to create internship experiences for underrepresented high school students in marketing fields, got its start in the Twin Cities over 10 years ago, and more recently expanded to Kansas City. Milwaukee will be its third market. A $1 million investment from Sussex-based Quad/Graphics Inc. – which has previous experience working with The BrandLab through its Minneapolis-based agency Periscope – helped attract the organization here. 

When he heard about The BrandLab’s expansion plans, Hanson recognized a strong overlap in the missions of the organization and his own nonprofit. 

“Their mission is almost identical to Greater Together,” he said, adding that The BrandLab also brings with it the advantages of a proven model and a level of financial backing that would take Greater Together several more years to achieve. 

Maggie McCracken, chief executive officer of The BrandLab, said the program works to address one of the biggest barriers to diverse talent pursuing creative careers: a lack of exposure. 

“They’re often just not exposed to the industry, so we start with exposure, creating awareness of the creative industry as a career path,” McCracken said. 

For Chester-Hopkins, the opportunity to see the innerworkings of an ad agency, including the diversity of career paths represented in it, was special. Her school, Pathways High, uses a project-based learning approach, but the arts curriculum doesn’t typically include graphic design, which she sees as a potential future career. 

“It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me,” Chester-Hopkins said. 

Emelly Ibarra, a rising freshman, said the experience solidified her interest in the field. 

“This is a possible career for me. I’m definitely thinking of coming back next summer if they do have another job internship opportunity open,” she said. 

In a city where only 69% of public school students graduate high school, Hanson said he hopes programs like The BrandLab and Hanson Dodge’s give students the motivation and direction needed to complete their degree and pursue a creative profession.

But to successfully draw diverse talent in, employers need training, too, particularly around creating a welcoming and inclusive environment that encourages young people to be fully themselves, McCracken said.

Another component is ensuring the internships are paid, as unpaid internships have historically been a barrier to entry for people from diverse and socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds.

Kelly Klawonn, vice president of talent and operations at Hanson Dodge, said paying high school students for their efforts was a high priority this summer. 

“We felt it was important to create an experience that was representative of a real internship, and we always pay our interns. And these kids, despite being somewhat younger, still deserve that opportunity and we value what they were bringing to it. They showed up every day on time, they were as engaged as an employee and they treated it like a job, and we did too,” Klawonn said, adding it also offered additional learning opportunities, like helping students complete their tax paperwork for the first time.

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