Creating inclusive design has risen to the forefront of conversation in advertising and other fields, and the timing couldn’t be better for Tombras School of Advertising and Public Relations master’s alumnus Josh Loebner (’99). Loebner recently landed a role he calls a dream job: global head of inclusive design for international marketing communications agency Wunderman Thompson. It’s a position he has worked towards for the past 23 years by developing skills and interests at various jobs, as well as by attaining his PhD in rhetoric, communication, and information design from Clemson University.
Loebner’s initial route to advertising was, as he puts it, “circuitous.” He graduated from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville with an undergraduate degree in forestry and had hoped to find a job working in the East Tennessee outdoors, but that did not pan out.
“I’m fully blind in my left eye and legally blind in my right, so it was tough to get a job. I went back to UT and I went to career services and they said, take a career test, and it said maybe advertising might be a good option,” Loebner recounted.
The person who helped him took into account Loebner’s disability and noted that advertising would allow him to live in an urban area with plenty of job opportunities and public transportation. He received financial support through Tennessee’s Vocational Rehabilitation Services and returned to UT to see if a master’s from ADPR was the right choice for him.
“I went to Circle Park and I met with [ADPR Professor] Eric Haley and he said, ‘Take a class and see if you like it.” I felt like a fish in water and I knew this was the profession I wanted to go into. I loved it, and I loved every class I took,” Loebner said.
Haley was Loebner’s advisor throughout his master’s program, and has been a champion of the alumnus ever since.
“Josh is an inspiration. He has risen above his own disability to become a leading voice in the advertising industry for the role of disability in diversity, equity, and inclusion. We are so proud that the UT advertising master’s program could be part of his path to this important position with Wunderman Thompson,” Haley said.
After graduating, Loebner fulfilled his aspiration to work at a company on Madison Avenue in New York City when he was hired to do account management and planning at communications marketing firm Young & Rubicum (now YMLY&R). He then moved from there to an account management and planning job at public relations firm Edelman. Then, 9/11 occurred just a few blocks away from where he worked and the change of social climate in New York spurred Loebner to return home to Knoxville shortly thereafter. He worked with three boutique firms in Knoxville, each of which helped shaped his career. That’s also when he began looking into his current niche field of inclusion and accessibility.
“I started to shift my focus to dedicating my career to inclusive design and disability inclusion. What’s amazing is I was able to support global brands on inclusive design projects, serve nationally on advertising industry boards and a keynote speaker and thought leader on the subject, from here in Knoxville. These efforts, among others, guided my trajectory to Wunderman Thompson. I’ve been very fortunate,” he said.
In 2011, Loebner started a blog called Advertising and Disability in an effort to fill a gap he saw in coverage on the topic in trade publications. As his blog grew in popularity, he eventually became a contributing writer to Adweek and a subject expert for journalists writing about inclusive design.
When the position at Wunderman Thompson was offered to him, Loebner couldn’t have been happier. While some companies are just now developing a point of view on inclusivity, Wunderman Thompson has been a leader in the area.
“Wunderman Thompson was the first agency to create an inclusive experience practice to better elevate marginalized and under-served consumers and communities, including people with disabilities,” Loebner said. “It’s definitely my dream job, I couldn’t craft a better opportunity to be able to create dynamic and fundamental change from an agency perspective across the industry and globally. “
He explained that inclusive design goes beyond accessibility on websites and extends to how advertising content is created and distributed, building inclusive workforces, and down to how product design and packaging can be more accessible and inclusive for consumers. It also goes beyond disabilities and includes other marginalized communities.
“We are also looking at the LGBTQIA+ community, Latino and Hispanic communities, people of color, people with disabilities, women, religion, and others, all so the intersectionality becomes a positive in increasing connectivity with consumers,” he said.
Though a lot of factors were at play to get Loebner to where he is today, he counts his experience at UT and the College of Communication and Information as playing a significant role in all of it.
“In my role, I’m a torchbearer guiding the pathway for better inclusive design on a global scale. Getting my master’s at UT was an amazing experience that honestly opened doorways and pathways I hadn’t thought possible. Once I stepped into the field, it just opened up so many new opportunities for me to be able to do amazing and creative and fun things. It’s a wonderful industry that continues to evolve, I don’t want to be anywhere else,” he said.