5 Stories of Black Professionals in White-Dominated Agencies
Racial prejudice in the advertising industry has been an ongoing issue, ever since the 1960s when advertising agencies first started hiring black creative professionals. The Drum asked 5 African American professionals from five different decades to tell their stories of their experiences while working in white-owned agencies. In the article below, they let us in on their struggles with disillusionment, disguised prejudice, glass ceilings, and pseudo-diversity in the various agencies, and their determination to succeed in spite of it all.
1970s - Carol H. Williams
I took a seat anyway.
In 1969, Carol Williams joined Leo Burnett as a copywriter. She was immediately relegated to “Chocolate City”, a section of cubicles occupied by the African American copywriters.
Chocolate City was, for all intents and purposes, the agency’s “ghetto’ unit. The African Americans were exempted them from anything of importance within the company. They were hardly invited to participate in meetings where new strategies and marketing programmes were discussed. In Carol’s words, a typical day in Chocolate City involved “reading, waiting, and a small radio playing music in the background.” They were to be seen, but not necessarily heard.
Meanwhile, the 13thfloor, where all the activity went on, was reserved for the big-wig creatives, who were all white and male. Chocolate City staff were not usually invited there.
But on her third day in the agency, Carol decided to pay the 13th floor an unscheduled visit.
She says: “Jim Gilmore, my supervisor, had his door wide open. His office was filled with white men hovering over a single guy at a desk with his typewriter.”
Intimidated, Carol thought of slipping away, but she had already been seen. So she spoke to the man at the typewriter instead.
“I’m Carol Williams,” she said.
“Jim Gilmore,” he replied. “Come on in.”
The men were murmuring about an assignment which was proving difficult. They were supposed to launch a campaign for a biscuit line called Pillsbury Best, to compete with toast for breakfast. But the men found the idea of having biscuits for breakfast ridiculous. They had never even heard of such a thing.
“I was shocked,” Carol says. “Maybe it was my southern Black roots, but my family ate biscuits for breakfast. The images of Sunday breakfast before church with straight-up eggs, grits, gravy or jelly, and mom’s delicious homemade biscuits, propelled me back to my cubicle with a pen.”
In a matter of hours, she had come up with a tagline: ‘Nothing is quite as good as biscuits in the morning, it’s Pillsbury’s Best time of day.’
She submitted it to Jim Gilmore the next day. After a long look at it, he asked her, “You wrote this?”
“That’s a damn good line.”
The next morning, Carol was informed by Jim Gilmore that the brand had bought her line.
Carol was elated. “The best and brightest of advertising had bought my line to head a campaign, all based on a poor Black family’s Sunday breakfast,” she said.
That was the beginning of her big break in the industry. Carol Williams went on to become the first woman and first African American creative director and vice-president of Leo Burnett, before leaving in 1986 to found her own advertising agency.
“Initially, I may not have had a place at the table,” she says. “But I took a seat anyway, and I’ve had one ever since. At times, it’s been at the head.”
1980s - Valerie Graves
From black professional to professional Black
When Valerie Graves worked at BBDO, she was the only black professional in the entire agency. And when she worked at Boston-based K&E, she was the only black professional in the entire city.
In 1980, she landed a job at Ross Roy, a Detroit-based agency who thought hiring a black copywriter was a “hip move”, and proof of its enlightened hiring policies.
She says: “In the 1980s, the biggest challenge for a black ad professional was avoiding being co-opted or consigned to ‘mascot’ status. Once I became a ‘go-to guy’ at Ross Roy, the creative director – ignoring my preference not to be nicknamed – dubbed me ‘Val Graves’.”
“Still, in the 1980s, in was in, so…I made peace with being renamed by a white man, put my head down and did the work.”
As it turned out, doing the work paid off for her. After 3 years of sheer hard work, Valerie was made vice-president, with a free car, a share in the company stocks, and a five-figure line of credit.
However, she soon realized that this was only as far as she was allowed to go.
“As a 34-year-old Black professional, I was already a success and a role model,” she says, “and the ad industry of the 1980s expected me to be satisfied. Black professional, meet glass ceiling.”
Fortunately, around that time, she met with Byron Lewis, founder and chairman of UniWorld Group, which is the oldest black-owned, black-targeted advertising agency in the United States. Lewis offered her a job, with promises of unlimited possibilities and befitting recognition. And, despite her fear of not being able to return to the general market, Valerie accepted the offer.
“From my first day at UniWorld I knew I was home,” she said. “I felt the full depth of my well of cultural knowledge and sensed that drawing from it could make me an expert in an industry that, in the 1980s, was only beginning to awaken to the power of multiculturalism.
“On that day, in 1985, I joyfully made the transition from Black professional to professional Black and never looked back.”
Graves is currently a creative consultant, and the author of Pressure Makes Diamonds.
1990s – Derek Walker
The end of an era.
Derek Walker started his advertising career in the mid-1990s, as a copywriter at Cramer-Kasselt. Now the founder of Browner & Browner Advertising, he describes the 90s as a golden era for creative advertising in the United States. He remembers agencies buzzing with music and conversation, tasks involving both work and play, and a more genuine expression of the concept of teamwork.
Nevertheless, being black in a white-dominated industry was still a challenge.
“During my time in Milwaukee, I was the only Black creative in the city,” he says. “There’s a lot of pressure that comes along with being ‘the only’. Having leadership that was not only aware of this but sensitive to it helped a lot. It also helped that the industry hadn’t abandoned training yet. I was fortunate to have mentors to help me grow professionally. But they still didn’t understand what it was like to be ‘the only’.”
He narrates a humorous but disturbing incident that occurred during one of the agency’s picnics, when, mistaking him to be the receptionist’s son, an account executive accosted him while he was standing in the food line.
““I thought the picnic was for employees only?” she asked.
“It is,” I replied. I wasn’t going to explain my presence to her.
“Well, aren’t you [the receptionist’s] son?” she continued.
“No, I’m a copywriter,” I came back. By now, other employees were noticing.
“What? We don’t have any Black copywriters. You’re joking,” she said.
Without blinking, I turned and yelled across the lot to my creative director: “Hey Neil, what’s my title?”
“Copywriter,” Neil said, without skipping a beat.
The shock on her face.
“Well, I guess we do now have a Black copywriter. Hi, I’m Derek – the Black copywriter,” I said extending my hand.
She and I became fast friends. But it was interesting that the people I was in line with never thought to correct her.”
However, according to Walker, as the 90s came to an end, so did the golden era which the advertising industry had enjoyed. The leaps and bounds in ICT at the beginning of the new millennium caused a sharp shift in the status quo, some aspects of which were less than pleasant.
In Walker’s words, “Our focus shifted from the power of creativity to the power of tech and data, and with that we lost a bit of our humanity. Client/agency relationships that had lasted decades started to end. We entered a period of chasing a magic bullet to justify our existence. The work was no longer enough.”
With this, many of the black people in the industry were slowly edged out. And since blacks were already in the minority, the loss was deeply felt by the few who were remaining.
“Many became eternal freelancers or moved to the client side,” says Walker. “The few C-suite Black advertising professionals – those who gave me hope that I had a place in advertising – were gone.
“We started the 1990s knowing who we were. We ended it questioning who we had become.”
2000s – Shameka M. Brown
You just don’t have “it”.
Shameka resumed at Foote, Cone, and Belding in 1999 after a “huge bloodletting”: a group of senior executives had just been fired en masse. And within a few months, she was the only black employee in a creative department of over 180.
Still, the situation was all good at first.
“Aside from the general optics, I didn't feel ‘othered,” she says. “It was hard work, but seemingly fair.”
So, like Graves, Brown decided to stick her nose to the grindstone. She and her teammate.
“To say we seized the opportunity would be an understatement: we killed it,” she declares. “We gave our all to every assignment and we reaped the rewards for it. In 2000, we were named creative team of the year and several raises soon followed. While I didn’t feel the effects of my race, I realized that limitations were being placed on me because of my gender and age. We were a team of two women in our mid-20s and everyone ahead of us was not. And yet, we were on a roll.
In 2003, the 9/11 disaster shook the industry to its senses for a while and seemed to level out the playing field. That year, Brown was promoted to vice-president, senior copywriter. She was on a “rocket-like trajectory” to the top.
However, just as she was to be made the associate creative director, Brown slammed hard against the metaphorical glass ceiling. She was informed by her creative director that she could not be promoted further because she “just didn’t have “it.””
“It took a while for me to comprehend this, because I had just had “it” a year before,” says Brown. “I racked my brain on what it could be: my race, my gender, my age or my talent. And then, it dawned on me that it was simply because I was next in line. It had more to do with politics than my ability to do the job.”
Because of this incident, and her doctor’s urgings, Brown, who had previously prioritized her work over everything else, decided to turn her energies to starting a family. Then she took a long maternity leave, while still trying to come to terms with her limitations, and to discourage the bigwigs from seeing her as a threat.
“But as I prepped for my return,” she says, “it was clear that I had changed, and the business had not.”
Eventually, she forfeited her position at the agency, and became a freelancer. Shameka Brown is now the co-founder and executive coach at The Only One There.
She recently found out, to her chagrin, that some of her former colleagues had attributed her success to an affirmative action display by the management, implying that she had been given an unfair advantage because she was black.
“Although I had worked my ass off and had earned it all, someone still tried to minimize my success to me being the black girl,” laments Brown. “20 years later, that comment still stung. I can only imagine what it would’ve felt like to hear it back then.”
2010s – Gabrielle Shirdan
I promise it’s in good hands!
Gabrielle Shirdan started to fall in love with the advertising world from the tender age of nine. As she grew older, her conviction strengthened, and she knew advertising was where she belonged. So, from her first year in university, she set out vigorously to take her place in it.
“I was a bright-eyed freshman squeezing my foot in the door at one of Philadelphia’s greatest agencies when they said sorry, internships were only for seniors,” she reminisces.
But Shirdan was never the type to take a ‘no’ for an answer. Positively “gushing with ambition”, she pursued and persuaded and pleaded her case until she was accepted as an intern at McCann New York while still a freshman.
“Two semesters and a campaign later, I went from being an intern to being offered a full-time position in my sophomore year.”
Shirdan proceeded to fling herself into the work with delighted enthusiasm.
“I’d rush to work from class and see my designs on the subway. I gave my first client pitch as a junior. And though I said “um” far too many times, I was sure that I had fallen in love with this ad life – with losing sleep and inviting myself to meetings. Briefs on briefs. All-nighters? Let’s go. Advertising was absolutely it for me.”
Now a vice president and creative director at the same agency, Shirdan discloses some of the biggest challenges she has faced in her journey.
“I have realized the greatest challenges I'm facing aren’t on the brief, but rather in the boardroom,” she says. “They are in the moments my concepts challenge a coworker’s comfort zone: in the moments I have to defend why it’s not my defensiveness but my passion; in the moments I find myself proving myself again and again and wait...really, again?
“The challenges are in the moments I pitch a ‘diverse’ idea when there’s no ‘diversity’ brief. In the moments I have to send ‘the list’ of Black creatives or Black directors because they just can’t seem to find us.”
She also reveals the shallowness of the diversity and inclusiveness which agencies claim to promote.
“There is a threshold to the agency appetite for inclusion. Our industry claims it wants ‘disruption’ in the work but has real resistance against disruption of the status quo. True disruption comes from diversity of thought and experience first, ideas second. True inclusion means a transfer of power, and that is a hard pill to swallow for the guardians of the gate.
“Sure, having a seat at the table is great. But I’m asking to break off some bread and pass the power so that I know it’s real. I promise it’s in good hands.”