November 21st, 2012
11:45 AM ET

Black advertising executives pay it forward

by Haley Draznin, Special to CNN

(CNN) - Brian Lee is a rare face in the advertising industry.

The 27-year-old assistant account executive at Wieden+Kennedy in Portland, Oregon, is one of the 7% of managers (PDF) in advertising and marketing who are black.

When Lee was looking for a way into advertising after graduating from college, he didn’t know how to get his foot in the door.

Enter Lincoln Stephens.

Stephens' passion to expose young black students to media led to the creation of the Marcus Graham Project, which mentors and trains youth in the skills they need to get a job at an ad agency.

"I started the Marcus Graham Project really out of a need to increase diversity in the  advertising and marketing industry," he said.

The project, named after Eddie Murphy's advertising executive character in the movie "Boomerang," began in 2007.

Stephens encouraged Lee to apply for the program’s 10-week intensive summer boot camp, where participants develop campaigns for real clients.

“He really set me up in a way that allowed me to get the foundation that I need to even be successful at Wieden+Kennedy," Lee said. "And so if it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be here.”

This year, Lee was a mentor and judge, joining his own mentor, Stephens, along with executives from advertising firms Publicis Kaplan Thaler and JWT at the One Club Creative Boot Camp. In the four-day competition at Morehouse College in Atlanta, students were challenged to create an ad campaign.  Winners earned a summer internship at Publicis or an invite to the Marcus Graham Project summer boot camp, where Lee got his start.

It allows Lee to pay it forward, just like Stephens did for him.

Soledad O'Brien's documentary "Who is Black in America?"  airs at 8 p.m. ET/PT on December 9 on CNN.