Interview: Larry Yarrell of The Marcus Graham Project speaks on the unique concerns facing today’s graduates and why more diverse players and leaders are so sorely needly in the advertising field

Written By: Melody Charles

Question: what do Dunkin Donuts, Mountain Dew and Kmart all have in common? They’re responsible for some of the most asinine and mind-blowingly racist ad campaigns of 2013, and the saddest part of all is that those cringe-worthy commercials could’ve been avoided if there were more executives of color, and that’s where The Marcus Graham Project comes in. (Ads herein referenced are linked to below)

Conceptualized by Lincoln Stephens and Jeffrey Tate and founded in 2007, The Marcus Graham Project combines the ingenuity of interns and experience of seasoned professionals to create a network of mentors, training programs and career development for the most under-served target group, African-American males.

As a member of the Dallas panel assembled to headline “The Journey,” a collective that assembled in four cities via the Lincoln Motor Company and Uptown magazine and highlighted the successes of prominent urban achievers, Larry Yarrell, Program Director and one of the founders of the MGP, spoke to a select local audience and then with about the goals of his organization, the unique concerns facing today’s graduates and why more diverse players and leaders are so sorely needed in the advertising field.

Larry-Yarrell-the-marcus-graham-projectKNOWSHI- Many people have already written off ‘The Millenial Generation’ as a lost cause, what are your thoughts on that mindset? 

LARRY YARRELL- “Honestly, it’s not about a lack of skill-there are a lot of talented, talented young creatives out there—-but they just have come up in a time to where they’ve been told to ‘make their own way’ and ‘do their own thing’ without much guidance or support. And when it comes to perfecting your path, you have to understand the history of it and what came before to know what’s going to work and what will make you the most successful moving forward. I think that’s the main point I try to get across [with my business partner Lincoln Stephens] to our interns, just to take the time to understand what it is you’re most passionate about and realize that it didn’t start with just you: learning from past mistakes is also what makes you better. When it comes to young people, it’s just about meeting them on their level and learning what makes them tick.

KNOWSHI- So the conflicts are on both sides? 

LY- “There’s resistance from the old school to the new school like ‘You haven’t paid your dues, so your ideas and passion are invalid,’ which isn’t true and it doesn’t help. Old school, in order to remain relevant and stay up on everything that’s coming in, needs to listen to the new school. Then the younger generation looks at it like, ‘Well that was then and this is now,’ but everything repeats itself. We change the name and call it new, but for the most part, nothing new is under the sun, right?”

KNOWSHI- Why aren’t more people or companies willing to reach back and help those on the come-up? Seems that some would rather just criticize instead of helping others make the change they hope to see. 

LY- “I think we’ve been de-programmed to become a little more selfish because social media’s made everything so much more visible now: we’re used to seeing the meteoric rise and falls of mega-stars, so we’re like ‘I got mine, go get yours’ and jump back into the cocoon. It is disheartening, but honestly, I’d rather have a sincere $100.00 donation than a selfish $50K one. There’s enough of us, I believe, to make it happen and change things for the better. It just takes people giving their time: people can misuse money, believe me, I’ve done it, but time is more important.”

KNOWSHI- Wonderful perspective: what will you tell us about the selection process and your internship program? 

LY- “Our summer boot camp process just started and it goes through next February. In terms of what we look for, our candidates range from a vast range of individuals between 18 and 35 years old; they’re not all college graduates, we pick our candidates on a needs basis and it can be more about the teams [assigned to projects] rather than the individual. we want them to be dynamic and among the best and brightest ones out there, because we’re working with real clients and there’s an expectation of real work that needs to be done correctly, but also brilliantly.

We also know the value of pure mentor-ship: let’s say one of the candidates is a college sophomore with no real work experience yet, but have the genuine passion for advertising—we’ll look for someone who’s older and more mature and experienced to pair him up with. That combination may create an extra battery surge to the more experienced guy and also inspire the one who doesn’t know any better. They’re from different parts of the country because that reflects the real-world working environment: different ages, backgrounds, male and female, etc., and we want to give them the most realistic experience possible. That way, by the end of the program, they decide if it’s what they needed or not for them, so they’re not wasting years in an industry that they’re not really passionate about. The reason why there are so little minorities and black men in that particular field is because of the lack of mentor-ship. So if we can help to get that first level going, then the chances of them reaching an executive or VP level are much higher.”

KNOWSHI- Are there any other obstacles that make it more difficult for up-and-coming professionals? 

LY- “Yes, a fear of failure: all we see is success, never the hard work or what it took to get there. Also, they’re flat-out coddled, it starts from birth. They get a ribbon for everything they participate in and get told they won. No, that’s not how it happens in real life— there’s a first, second and third place, then everyone else needs to go back into the lab. That’s a part of the story missing when the media portrays success. All we see is ‘look at my car, house, look at the girls.’ The ones that do understand it are ahead of the game and have that ‘by any means necessary’ mentality learn from those mistakes. They’re different from the others who have to be practically reprogrammed to not hold their heads down and told ‘It’s not over, it’s a part of the process and [being told ‘no’ is] a part of the journey.’

KNOWSHI- So the ultimate achievement would be for the Marcus Graham Project to flip the script on how we come across to the world, correct?

LY- “The main goal is a realistic image: when we see us on TV, we want those images to represent who we truly are, not just one type of individual–not just the gold tooth, gold chains, bling-bling….we want to reflect the full spectrum of who we are. If we put more people into the industry and there’s more of us making those final choices, then there’s a bigger chance that those portrayals will represent who we are, simply because they’re the result of us making those decisions.”

For More Information on The Marcus Graham Project visit:

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