Pharrell Williams Surprises Verizon Adfellows Class in Online Graduation

Virtual ceremonies don't have to be a total letdown after all

pharrell williams smiling with a red background
Pharrell Williams made a surprise appearance at Wednesday evening's adfellows graduation ceremony. Getty Images
Headshot of Mary Emily O

When 34 young people from around the country came to New York last year to participate in the coveted adfellows program, not one of them could have imagined that their spring graduation ceremony would be canceled due to a global pandemic.

This year’s class of fellows from Verizon’s diversity pipeline fellowship for marketing and advertising jobs expected to face the same disappointment shared by college and high school students everywhere that comes with substituting a much-anticipated celebration for a virtual event. But what they didn’t expect was that musician and entrepreneur Pharrell Williams was logging on to surprise them.

Williams joined the online adfellows graduation ceremony Wednesday at 5 p.m. The artist sat in the shade outside his house, apologizing for the sounds of his children playing in the yard. “I didn’t mean to crash this thing,” Williams told the class of graduates. “But I just wanted to say congratulations to all the kids in the program.”

Music artist Pharrell Williams appears on a live Zoom call while sitting outside his home

“Diversity is very important, as you know,” Williams continued. “There are all these narratives about people of color and minorities, and I think what this does [is] this shows the positive impact of a corporation that could be just out there chasing money and chasing currency. But you’re thinking about the people who are out there, the people who use this service, the people who are living this every day.”

Verizon evp and chief marketing officer Diego Scotti launched adfellows in 2017, and the current class is the largest ever. The program sends talented aspiring ad pros to the offices of top agencies like McCann, Publicis and Digitas, all while covering living expenses and stipends for each fellow. This year, each fellow went through four “rotations,” working on marketing projects for the likes of Verizon, American Express, Anheuser-Busch and Walmart.

“The program allows [the fellows] to get an in-depth look at the different areas that make up marketing to identify their interests,” said Scotti. “It removes the economic barriers that often keep young, diverse talent from moving to a city like New York to get the experience they need to start their career, and it provides an opportunity for the industry to collaborate and make a change at scale, which we’re doing with our agency and brand partners.”

Even though the pandemic hit in the middle of the fellowship program, the experience of moving everything online helped some of the fellows learn to think adaptively.

“My fourth and final rotation at Walmart has been completely virtual, which has had its challenges, but has pushed me to be more proactive when it comes to communication with my manager and my team,” said fellow Nudrat Kadir. “I’ve found ways to mimic previous rotations by FaceTiming coworkers to have work sessions, which made it feel like we were back in the office.”

One of the primary goals of the adfellows program is to place 90% of graduates in full-time jobs. If that wasn’t a challenging task before, it’s certainly launching into uncharted territory now. Kadir said that she’s conducted all of her job interviews virtually, which comes with its fair share of challenges.

three people are seen in separate boxes in an online video chat

For fellow Justin Alvis, the Covid-19 crisis quickly impacted his career focus.

“I’ve been working on a lot of experiential projects, and Covid-19 placed many things on pause. It has been interesting to see the work shift from designing in-person experiences to a focus on virtual reality and ecommerce,” Alvis said.

During the ceremony, Alvis spoke about the frantic pace of living in New York and how he frequently moved from apartment to apartment. The Covid-19 quarantine, he said, actually forced him to stay home and relax for the first time since getting to the city.

Marketing goals—and, surely, budgets—have shifted at the partner brands that participate in adfellows, too. But what hasn’t changed is the overall goal of bringing more diverse voices into the industry.

“Building a team as diverse as our customer base isn’t a nice-to-have; it’s a need-to-have,” said Walmart CCO Janey Whiteside. “It takes the thought, talent and leadership of so many to serve our customers to the best of our ability, and we’re excited to welcome the new and diverse voices of the adfellows.”

Though the current job market is incredibly challenging for graduates with such high unemployment rates, Verizon and its partners are still committed to placing the adfellows class in staff positions this spring.

While all of the adfellows are entering the advertising and marketing industry for the first time, some of them are coming in from backgrounds in other industries. Fellow Ranita Findlay moved to New York from Tampa, Fla. to pivot from an IT career, but she expressed no regrets.

“The biggest lesson I’ve learned from the program is to always stay open-minded and flexible,” said Findlay. “I took a leap of faith and moved to N.Y. while switching careers from IT auditing to marketing. Throughout this journey, I was constantly reminded of how important it is to be willing to try new things, even if it’s outside of your comfort zone.”

@MaryEmilyOHara Mary Emily O'Hara is a diversity and inclusion reporter. They specialize in covering LGBTQ+ issues and other underrepresented communities.