A Multicultural Pioneer Without a Frontier

 

 

In 2008, multicultural advertising is in.

I made my living writing multicultural advertising before it was considered relevant. Relevant:  Humm, that’s a politically correct word. Let’s say, before it was considered legitimate. Back in the day, doing ads for markets other than the general market was not recognized or respected. It wasn’t “real advertising”.  I’ve written for African American, Hispanic and Asian Markets. Though I am not bi or tri-lingual, I’ve made it my business to study and understand other cultures, and gain insights from people who are different from me. Because of this, I have connected successfully over the years with my target audiences.

General Market advertising is much easier to write, and I have a lot of experience in that as well. But my career path first led me down the road that spoke the language of color. It wasn’t a path I necessarily wanted to take. But I had no choice.

Let’s rewind time…

In the late 60’s and 70’s, on the heels of the civil rights movement, advertising programs were created to recruit minorities into the industry. Many great people – some known and unknown – became very successful; Tom Burrell, Vince Cullers and Barbara Proctor to name a few. But by the late 70’s, early 80’s, those programs were discontinued. That was my era. Interest in fresh black talent fizzled. I learned really fast that getting through the door was going to be more of a struggle, and you know, breaking into the biz is akin to threading a camel through the eye of a needle. It was tough despite the fact that I had a white mentor who was a creative director at a top agency helping me out. Even she confessed that it would be very hard to get me in, not only because I was a recent college grad, but because I was…dare I say it… black. I think being black came with the presumption that I wasn’t the general market. Therefore, how could I write to that market? And most poignantly, how could I fit into the agency’s general market culture? As a woman in a male dominated industry, she confided that she routinely experienced gender bias. She knew it would be doubly difficult for me. What she could do was help me improve my portfolio and send me to friends in other agencies for interviews. They could either get me in or at least direct me to people who could.

Her friends were very nice and helpful. They seemed surprised and delighted by my work. They critiqued it and gave me great tips, advice and references. They thought I was very talented and deserved a foot in the door, just not their door. There were no openings I was told. And then with a smile, they would ask, “Have you tried Burrell?” I was very familiar with the African-American agency down the street. You wouldn’t believe how many general market agency people asked me that. It almost became a mantra.

Yes, I had tried Burrell. Burrell was very hot, but like the rest of the agencies, hard to get into. I didn’t have any contacts there at the time. But I really wanted to do general market work for agencies like Leo Burnett, Needham, and Foot Cone & Belding. I was afraid that working for a black agency, though well respected, would typecast me. But of course, I wouldn’t turn it down if given the opportunity. My portfolio was mostly general market stuff. I presented well, I was enthusiastic. I would work for free. But sorry, it wasn’t gonna happen.

Let me just say, my mentor advised me not to learn to type. That the agencies would give me a receptionist or secretary job in a minute and I would find myself still in that position 10 years later. So I didn’t have those skill sets to offer – not that I was ever offered a receptionist’s job.  I’m still wondering if that was a good move, though I can peck keys at 50 WPM.

Anyway, a year and a half went by before I landed a job at the newly formed Brainstorm Communications.  It was the in-house agency for Soft Sheen Products, a growing multimillion dollar black hair care company in Chicago.  The agency folks reviewed my work, saw my potential and gave me a chance.

For most African-American ad wannabes, the black hair care boon of the 80’s was their ONLY ticket into the ad industry. I learned so much from the folks at Brainstorm. They taught me everything – from writing effective TV, radio and print, to crafting trade show collateral; from thinking strategically to managing timelines; from facilitating vendor relations to acing client presentations. They instilled in me the foundation of a solid work ethic and pride in my work and the community. That’s something I would have never gotten from a GM agency. They expected no less than greatness. And I was eager to give it to them. They helped me understand the nuances of black people. Yes, even I, a black person, had a lot to learn about black people. One huge fact is that blacks are not monolithic. We don’t live, talk or think the same way. And not all black people are African-American. This is another fact even some African-Americans don’t realize. These distinctions are things many general marketers still have difficulty grasping. For five years I grew creatively and professionally. I made friendships that exist to this day. But that path still led me down that dreaded destination: Typecasting.

Not only did I do the non respectable thing – write advertising for black folks, but I wrote hair care advertising for black folks; a fact that brought cold shoulders from hiring decision makers in the ad industry. However, the work Brainstorm executed for Soft Sheen Products raised the bar on creativity, persuasion and taste. The talent I had the privilege of working with got their start at general market agencies – thanks to those minority programs in the 60’s.  Brainstorm was no “We-don’t-know-what-the-freak-we’re-doing” operation. The work won awards, albeit Black awards.  But most of all, it sold product. Still, we were labeled. My portfolio was full of great ads with beautiful black faces and shiny bouncy hair – and not much else. After five years, it was clear I had to bust a move in order to grow.

I seized that opportunity with then Grey Chicago, which had recently acquired the Alberto Culver account. One of their brands was TCB, an African-American hair care line that is still on the market today. I would only accept the position if the agency allowed me to work on their general market brands such as the Alberto Styling Line, VO5, Mrs. Dash, Molly McButter, Baker’s Joy and Static Guard. They agreed. And off I went. I was Grey’s only African-American copywriter.

I was concerned about being perceived as a traitor to my colleagues of color. After all, I was jumping to a general market agency with an African-American account. A white agency creating advertising for a black account was taboo in the black ad industry. Back then, I struggled with that reality. But the alternative choice was, I felt, professional suicide. I only hoped that in this position, I would act as overseer and make sure the image of blacks were represented with dignity and truth. I feel I did that.

To my delight, my general market concepts were also well received – and consistently produced; much to the surprise of my fellow colleagues. I ended up writing 80% general market and 20% African-American.  At the agency, I became known, as “The Star”. But when I was introduced to VIPs, I was called “Our Black Writer”.

Four years later, when the agency lost Alberto Culver (due to circumstances that didn’t involve me) my star status quickly dimmed and I was let go – despite my general market success. I didn’t find a steady job for a year and a half. That was 1991.

Fast forward to 2008.

Multicultural is now in. But it seems folks like me are out. Does our myriad skills and experience now make us unmarketable? Personally, I’ve directed, managed and mentored my share of talent in both general market and African-American agencies.  I’ve stayed in touch with current and emerging trends in the industry – especially in the interactive arena. Though I have written for broad and niche markets, a seasoned African-American wordsmith like myself, seems to not quite fit today’s image. Has perception become my reality? Does the industry now prefer a younger, greener, cheaper, general market-looking version of me? Am I and others like me, irrelevant?

Oh, the irony of it all.

So here I am reinventing myself – to what, remains to be seen. All I know is that I’m riding my well heeled horse down a new frontier.  It will be a challenge, but I was up for it back in the 80’s, and I’m up for it now.

21 comments

  1. Tanya

    Nice blog site – I am very impressed. I am going to share this!

    Do you really want to be hired? Don’t you feel it’s time for you to create
    your own product and use your GM and Multi cultural skills and creativity
    to sell and market it. Start with one children’s book – consider SmartMarvin as a client. I need a treatment-there’s a begining,

    But at any rate I wish you much sucess with this blog – a much needed conversation – try to tie into Black Voices

  2. Francesca

    Very thought-provoking blog! I agree with Tanya– there’s got to be another outlet for your creative energy other than a conventional “job.” I immediately think of our African-American (and all multicultural) youth. The virtue of the printed and spoken word (communication!) is lost to many of our young people. I’m sure you could inspire some unknown future wordsmiths!

  3. Tom Cunniff

    Edye, this is wonderfully smart and well-written. I have no doubt you were a star wherever you worked.

    The ad agency business is going through wrenching changes, and for better or worse will never be the same again. If it makes you feel any better, this has almost nothing to do with any of us or how relevant our talents are. It has almost everything to do with titanic, permanent changes in media.

    In advertising today, the air gets thinner the higher you climb, and the rewards aren’t (and can’t be) what they used to be. What’s more, if any of us could pick our dream job tomorrow there’s no guarantee we’d still have it a year from now. Does any of that sound like fun?

    When everything’s being turned upside down, all it means is that new opportunities are being revealed in places we never would have thought to look before.

    There’s a gigantic world outside of advertising that is as good or better than any ad job in the world. Get as digital as you can be (blogging is a great start). Think about social media. Think about working directly for the media. Go direct to clients and ask how you can help.

    Rest assured your talent, your voice, your energy and your perspective and experience are all needed. Opportunity is still there, it’s just not neccessarily in the place where we’re used to looking for it.

  4. Karen

    Edye,

    I worked in two ad agencies in Baltimore for a total of five years. Each had one black employee–a receptionist at one and accounts receivable the other. In fact, aside from those two women, I was the only one even close to multi-cultural simply based on the fact my husband’s last name is Hispanic. Although I’m sure many things have changed in the ad world since the early 80s, it doesn’t appear to have changed much in Baltimore. Thanks for your blog.

  5. skip

    You go girl. As I read the comments above, I thought about the pioneering 1st album of Mary J. Blige. At the beginning were short comments from her voice mail from some of her best buds, people like Busta Rhyme, who at that time I had never heard of. They were giving Mary J. her props for this breakthrough artistic piece. Cathy and I were traveling Canada by car at that time and we wore that album out.

    During our short history which spans almost a couple of decades, you have always stood out from the crowd and above the fray (sp). Your brilliant statement demonstrates this. You are not trying to showcase the expertise that you have. That should be evident from your experience and longevity. But I think that you’re trying to go with the the flow, like the mighty Mississippi. You are going with your gut. It’s a reflections piece.

    You expressed to me that this is a “journey blog.” One that is “organic and heart centered.” I agree. If this generates business or friends, it will be done organically and therefore will stand the test of time.

    Cathy and I Loveya. God bless. Keep on blessing others and watch how God through Jesus will bless you and your family even more abundantly.

  6. Kay

    Edye,

    Your blog was a trip down memory lane. Having been a part of some of these experiences with you, Tanya and Francesca, it reminds me of how much fun (and pain) we had, and just how incredibly much this industry has changed.

    I think we’re all feeling a little “tossed off” in this new generation of advertising agencies. Even the people in them are feeling the bite of change, and we’re all wondering where — if any — is our place in them? But on the other hand, I totally agree with Tom. Every change brings its own set of opportunities, and while I haven’t found the answer for myself, I am really excited about what might be ahead for me.

    After all these years in the agency business, I’ve proven I’m good enough to bring fame and fortune to someone else. Now, I want to see if I’m good enough to do that for myself. I don’t mean I’m going to start an agency . . . I just mean I’m going to capitalize on that talent of mine, that has been so coveted, and undervalued at the same time!!!

    Edye, you are an absolutely brilliant creative . . .always have been. Turn that beautiful well-heeled horse around, and ride away from the sunset. You’ve still got too much do.

  7. marplet

    Edye… thank you for sharing your experience in such a thoughtful, well-written way. I look forward to the follow-on posts as you find your frontier!

  8. Doctor D!

    Edye: drop your 10-page CV (I know its gotta be that extensive:) to my email. My organization is 100% digital and 2.0 and will be national in a few quarters. Could use a giant or giantess like yourself running my agency division.

  9. A

    It might be history for you in USA but UK is very much the same as USA was in the 80s.
    I have worked on brands like Motorola, Canon and RayBan on national level in India and I moved to UK a year ago. But finding a decent job wasn’t easy for me and I settled for an intern role in a small time company in London only to find out that my marketing director does not know even half of what I know about brand management. And that’s true for most of the other people who work here.

    The pace of work is so slow that the amount of work I used to do in a day in India takes a week for these people to do. And on top of that I get ill treated by most of them. They ignore me everywhere.

    Yet I cannot do anything because I am from a developing country and my CV is not sellable here.

  10. Tamara

    Hi Edye,

    My God, your writing sent a chill up my spine. As we know navigating the agency world is hard. And if you are Black, dare I say especially African American, it feels impossible. One often makes tradeoffs to extend his/her career. And even then, security is unknown. As I begin to approach latter years, it seems the ladder rungs remain many and vastly wideer than ever. I find it necessary to review and reaffirm a comittment to follow my passion. Damn it all, advertising/marketing communications always bubbles up to the top! I’m sure it’s the same way for you.

    So, I remind you to remain steadfast in your courage and to keep a light shining on your triumphs. You are always a star, whether you work at another agency or not. I believe your contributions can be made in various ways and reinvention simply means making another path in the dirt.

    Let’s talk, because this missive just sparked an idea that just might result in interesting challenges and results.

    Until then, Speak Your Mind! It’s a Great One!

    Tams

    • eldhughes

      Thank you so much for your positive comments and support. Please share my posts if you feel inspired yo do so. Blessings…

  11. Kai EL Zabar

    Hey Ms. Hughes,
    you were correct, I did enjoy the share and am happy to see the Columbia alumnae doing something so positive and yet at the same time my heart is so heavy. I remember my youth as a Baby Boomer when upon the heels of the Civil Rights Movement of our parents, we came of age and emerged with Black Power on our minds, in our hearts and spirit. We stepped up to the plate only to be shot down, murdered, imprisoned, destroyed by drugs and oppressed. Consequently the generations after us have not been what I dreamed they would be nor are we as I envisioned us as a people. I know that ‘a change must come’ for things are constantly changing but is it really or is it the illusion the Merry-go-round gives? Is it change then or transformation we are seeking? For truly things appear on the outside differently, after all Barack Obama is President of the USA and yet the hatred that would murder him as clearly as they killed Fred Hampton is alive and well.

    • eldhughes

      Hi Kai, I think our generation failed our kids. We did not pass on the fervor of our convictions. Or maybe the “I Have a Dream” way of life has a double edge sword, the more we integrate, the more we lose a piece of ourselves. Black Pride is replaced with multiculturalism. And blacks who are struggling are further separated by blacks who are better off. There’s no knowledge or interest in our history so we’re doomed to repeat it. That’s what is happening now.

  12. Kai EL Zabar

    I hope you don’t think I’m crazy but I actually responded in the wrong place in my previous submission. you can discard that. I was responding to the email you had sent regarding the Chi-Voices project. Now tho your Blog notes . . . You are so on the money! Wow and I had no idea that you worked for Brainstorm. I was an editor at ShopTalk, Softsheen’s Trade publication. So did you know Tanya Lyda? Anyway, you said all that is important to say in a public forum. I was attending Lake Forest College with John E. Johnson, son of the Ultra Sheen Johnson Products. I remember when the White hair care product companies wanted a share of the market and actually sought legal support to have the Ultra Sheen products taken off the shelves while they regrouped and started producing products directed to us. My point is that they have always wanted to dominate the market not with us in mind until they realized that we spent lots of money and did not respond to their advertising. Only then did they think is sensible to market to Blacks differently as a separate niche. As the 90’s began to blend and blur the edges of race on the surface it provided the opportunity for the white mass conglomerates to snatch any inkling of black advertising specialty markets. Instead they have cancelled the niche specific Black ads and merged them with their ethnic ad campaigns. They preyed on our weakness to want to belong and be seen as part of the whole. It’s sad that we didn’t see it as part of the destruction of those businesses and jobs that attributed to Backs excelling in an industry/industries that contributed to the growth and success of upscale blacks. Just ask most how they made their money and you’ll understand what I mean.

    • eldhughes

      Yep, you’re on the money. Very sad and frustrating. Yes, I know Tanya. She is like a sister to me. I also know Henry Rock. He use to work with you and your husband on the underground Jazz fest, right? I still talk to him as well. We seem to be a gullible race. Can’t see the forest for the trees, not if the limbs are bearing juicy apples to tempt us.

  13. Glenn duker lawyer Australia

    Hello! This is kind of off topic but I need
    some help from an established blog. Is it very difficult to set up your own blog?
    I’m not very techincal but I can figure things out pretty fast. I’m thinking about creating my own but I’m not sure where to begin. Do you have any ideas or suggestions? Thank you

    • eldhughes

      Sign up with WordPress. Pick a free theme for your blog, start writing your topic. Add sharing plugins. Post it on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and email it. Takes time to establish a following. The deal is promote to people interested in your topic. Get to know other bloggers and folks on social media sites you can exchange thoughts and ideas with. Develop relationships. People may be apt to share your posts. You reciprocate. Make sure your work is good content. Write often – one to 3 times a week to be aggressive. Establish yourself in search engines. Use keywords and phrases . Make sure your headline uses keyword rich doe SEO. Hope this helps.

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