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Why the University of Tennessee is focusing its new advertising school on diversity

Founded with Knoxville-based agency Tombras, the Tombras School of Advertising and Public Relations is focusing on BIPOC talent.

Why the University of Tennessee is focusing its new advertising school on diversity
[Source Images: We Are/Getty; sframephoto/iStock]

Before Charles Tombras founded Tennessee’s first-ever ad agency in 1946, he attended the University of Tennessee at Knoxville to study accounting and law. That agency still bears his surname as Tombras Group, and is headed up by his grandson Dooley Tombras, serving national clients like Subway, Orangetheory Fitness, Mozilla Firefox, and Hotels.com.

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Now the agency is honoring its founder’s legacy by partnering with the University of Tennessee at Knoxville to rename the school’s ad program the Tombras School of Advertising and Public Relations, and use it to build a strong, consistent pipeline of diverse talent into the advertising and marketing industry.

“This is a decades-long problem, of systemic racism that’s led to underrepresentation in the industry,” says the Tombras Group CEO. “It doesn’t get solved overnight, but hopefully this becomes a part of the solution.”

Broadly, the school’s goal is to double the number of graduates of color entering the advertising and marketing industry from the university. One of the primary ways it intends to do this is also by growing the number of BIPOC students attending the program. Through initiatives like the Tennessee Promise, Tombras will be focusing recruitment and outreach at the state’s 30 “flagship” schools, or schools in both at-risk and diverse areas, to start presenting advertising and marketing as a viable career path option to high school students.

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“This is what will allow us to help create change at scale,” says Tombras. Agency staff across various departments will participate as adjunct professors to keep the curriculum as up to date as possible.

While the new UT program is meant to help lift BIPOC numbers across all marketing and advertising, Tombras also has his own selfish reasons for boosting the talent pool and diversity of his own agency. The company has committed to 13% BIPOC leadership by 2023, yet today that sits at less than half that, at 6%. Its BIPOC hiring stats have grown from about 8% of new employees in 2020, to more than 11% in 2021, and the agency no longer requires a college degree in an effort to find more talent beyond the traditional advertising pipelines. “We have a long way to achieve our full DE&I objectives but made measurable progress in 2021,” says Tombras.

Recently, a group of Black ad industry leaders gathered to talk about the lack of support and mechanisms in place to foster more BIPOC leadership in advertising. And last year, AdAge reported that the industry’s biggest holding companies still lag in having BIPOC employee numbers match the general population. Tombras says he hopes the new UT program becomes a new pipeline for decades of new Black American talent to finally be given more chances to succeed in this industry.

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“It needs to be solved both from the top-down and bottom-up,” says Tombras. “Top down is by prioritizing diverse hires at the leadership level, but also in getting more diverse talent into the industry at scale.”

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About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity.

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