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.