Editor’s note: This article is part of a series exploring diversity and inclusion in the workplace to be published over the next few months. If you have a story idea about diversity and inclusion in the workplace, please send leads to WRAL TechWire’s Chantal Allam at cabitbol@gmail.com.

DURHAM — Much has changed since the 1960’s “Mad Men” era of advertising where excess and sexism were rampant throughout the industry.

But by all accounts, there’s still some ways to go.

The industry is still predominantly white and underrepresented by minorities, say insiders. And for one of Durham’s leading ad agencies, McKinney, that’s not good enough.

As part of its push, the company has set up a scholarship to help underrepresented minority groups and the LGBTQ community. It has also developed a multi-tiered “diversity, inclusion and equity” strategy to implement change.

“The industry as a whole has struggled with diversity and inclusion,” McKinney’s Chief Talent Officer Sue Roche told WRAL TechWire. “We’d rather start our own thing and make an impact locally. We’re building momentum.”

The disproportionate numbers

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only about 22 percent of people who identify as African-American/black, Asian, Hispanic or Latino make up the advertising, public relations and related fields.

The next generation of the advertising world … 2018 Joni Madison Mtern Diversity Scholarship recipients Nijah McKinney and Jacob Hege.

Programs like McKinney’s Joni Madison Mtern Diversity Scholarship – established in 2016 and named after its former chief operating officer — are helping to “[turn] the tide” and “fill the talent pipeline with diverse candidates”, said Keesha Jean-Baptiste, Senior Vice President of Talent Engagement and Inclusion at the 4A’s, the leading trade organization representing the advertising agency business. (Mtern is short for McKinney and intern.)

The firm recently announced that Nijah McKinney and Jacob Hege have been named this year’s recipients. As part of the two-month program, they got the chance to work as interns at the agency and receive career assistance, training, development, hands-on work experience and a paycheck.

(To be clear, McKinney does not ask employees to self-identify their sexual preference. However, it does ask about gender on applications, with the options female, male or decline to self-identify.)

Getting people of color into advertising

For Nijah McKinney, her decision to get into advertising was inspired by her love of storytelling. But perhaps more to the point, it offered her a chance to “gain influence”.

“Think about some of the greatest activists and leaders in this world. They all had one thing in common that made their cause effective, and that’s influence,” said McKinney, who recently graduated from the historically black university, North Carolina Central University, with a B.A. in mass communication.

“If I can tap into an industry that has the power of massive influence, imagine what change I could help create?”

The 21-year-old from High Point grew up in a diverse neighborhood, and while she didn’t experience much racism firsthand, “it didn’t necessarily skip [her] either.”

Still, she admits, she gets frustrated when she looks around the office and fails to see many other people of color. For her, the endgame is simple: bring up others along with her.

“I’m striving to get future minority leaders into this business and change those skewed stats,” she said. “Some people may not be aware of these opportunities, and that’s where I’m coming in – to make more people who look like me aware.”

Bringing the “margins” into mainstream

Jacob Hege is also on a mission – to get people’s stories on the margins of society into mainstream media.

Getting to work … 2018 Joni Madison Mtern Diversity Scholarship recipients Nijah McKinney and Jacob Hege.

As a gay man living in the South, he knows firsthand what it’s like to not always get your perspective told. But he believes “inclusive advertising” can help change that.

“Not one person is going to make the change. We’ve got to get the entire industry talking, and that’s part of what we’re working on this summer,” said the 22-year-old who recently graduated from Davidson College with a B.A. in communication studies and gender and sexuality studies.

“By showing more people in visual ads and [making] small language tweaks, there are ways to subtly reach out to those marginalized.”

He remains hopeful. “With a lot of the younger people coming in, I think there is a lot of movement. I feel like we’re on the cusp of something big.”