The BrandLab Welcomes Maggie McCracken as CEO
Maggie McCracken joins The BrandLab as CEO.

The BrandLab Welcomes Maggie McCracken as CEO

McCracken marries her experiences in creative agencies, corporate marketing, and nonprofit leadership to shepherd the Minneapolis-based marketing nonprofit into a new era.

With a background in nonprofit leadership and corporate marketing, Maggie McCracken will take the helm of The BrandLab on May 3. She steps into the CEO role at a time when the Minneapolis-based nonprofit’s job training and mentorship services for BIPOC students are in higher demand than ever by businesses of all sizes.

Created in response to the Twin Cities’ overwhelmingly white advertising community, The BrandLab provides marketing education and career training to high school and college students in the Twin Cities and Kansas City—opening their eyes to careers they might not have known existed and placing them in internships that often lead to job offers.

Widely respected as one of the only U.S. programs of its kind that starts with students as young as high school age, The BrandLab supporters include agencies such as Colle McVoy and Weber Shandwick, as well as many of the Twin Cities’ largest employers, including Target, General Mills, and 3M. 

McCracken, who replaces outgoing CEO Ellen Walthour, joins the organization at a critical time of national focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder last year, The BrandLab set lofty three-year goals to: 

  • Work with an additional 3,000 students
  • Expand to five markets
  • Secure 500 internships across those five markets
  • Grow its “Fearless” program nationally; the program works with businesses on cultural competency and inclusion of diverse identities

The BrandLab is already in the process of entering its third market in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. 

“I wish Maggie and the team success as they take The BrandLab to even greater heights,” says Walthour. “I will always support the movement and be deeply grateful for the privilege of celebrating so many talented, young rising stars in my time at The BrandLab.” 

Twin Cities Business spoke with McCracken about her expectations and hopes for The BrandLab. 

What led you to The BrandLab? 

My background is a combination of creative agency experience—starting out at Olson [founded by John Olson, who was also the founder of The BrandLab] before it became ICF—corporate marketing at Target, and most recently, nonprofit leadership. So when The BrandLab opportunity came up, it really was this culmination of all my previous experience rolled into one. My work most recently has been with students and most focused on the opportunity gap for out-of-school time. I see The BrandLab as allowing me to continue my work on the opportunity gap—still working with student populations that have been underrepresented in systems and spaces—but doing it in a way where I’m able to connect, and hopefully progress, the industry that I grew up in.

Since The BrandLab’s inception in 2009, the number of people of color working in advertising in the Twin Cities has grown from 6 to 10 percent. What’s the ultimate goal?

At the end of the day, the goal is for the industry to be reflective of the national demographics. We know that there are large groups of students and talent that have been underrepresented in many industries, but it’s certainly so in the marketing industry. So the goal would be that we are reflective of the population we serve. We want to be as inclusive and diverse in our ethnic, racial, and socioeconomic representation as possible because that’s really what’s going to help our industry move into the future. Plus, that focus is also representative of what and who our country is becoming. I’m excited to help progress this mission. 

How have the events of the past year affected The BrandLab and set it up for continued success? 

I can’t speak a ton to all of the ins and outs yet, but I do know that our “Fearless” program is continuing to grow, and that’s really driven by a commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion conversations. We also have a new partnership with some local partners with our LabFellows program, and we’re excited to have a commitment to bringing The BrandLab into Milwaukee, our third market. Without being deeply in the work quite yet, I would just say that we’re seeing a commitment from and an engagement with partners in new ways. 

The BrandLab announced last year that it plans to expand operations to five markets nationwide. Is that still in the plans? Tell me about it. 

Yes, that’s still looking promising. What I’ve learned from Ellen so far is that quality is the core of this work, and making sure that we are growing in a way that is supportive of students is essential. We have to make sure they’re getting what they need from the opportunities. As long as we’re able to continue that and see the excitement and the interest in markets, we’re looking forward to continuing that vision for expansion. 

What other plans for expansion and growth do you have for The BrandLab? 

First and foremost, following such an amazing leader like Ellen, I really want to make sure that I’m spending the time to get to know the team, to get to know the partners, and really make sure that I’m grounded in the things that have made this organization such a trusted and impactful organization to date. So that’s going to be my first goal and what I’ll definitely be spending time on in the next month or so. 

What’s the biggest challenge you believe you face as you step into the role of CEO? 

I think that my biggest challenge is going to be making sure that we can grow in a way that is healthy and sustainable, that invites people into our work, that encourages that next wave of talent, and that builds on the work that the team has done so far. At the end of the day, it’s really all about keeping The BrandLab’s momentum going in order to fulfill its mission of training new talent and diversifying the industry. 

What makes you most excited to join The BrandLab?

We’re seeing signs of progress, and we’re connecting with more students each year. The team and I are just extremely excited to see all that the students and the industry can be when we come together and commit to creating more ethnically-diverse, equitable, and inclusive workplaces. Because that’s what The BrandLab has been working for for over a decade.