'This line is for employees only’: stories of being Black in advertising, 1969-2020
It’s been more than 50 years since advertising agencies opened their doors to Black professionals – not as janitors and secretaries, but as creatives critical to the success of clients’ business. Yet acceptance, tolerance and appreciation did not come hand-in-hand in with entry, as these five stories from five decades show. This is what it’s like to be Black in advertising – then, and now.
Carol H Williams (pictured in main image) founded her eponymous advertising agency in 1986. Previously she was the first woman and first African American creative director and vice-president of Leo Burnett, which she joined in 1969.
It was my third day at the Leo Burnett advertising agency. I was on the 12th floor, sitting in the cubicles occupied by the African American copywriters, who were sponsored by the 4A’s advertising class.
We called it Chocolate City.
On the other side of my cubicle, a fellow copywriter came storming in. She threw some paper on her desk.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“My team is having a meeting without me,” she revealed.
“Why didn’t you go in?”
“Because I wasn’t invited.”
Almost everyone on the 13th floor – ‘upstairs’, as we called it – was white and male. It was easy to feel uninvited. My own phone hadn’t rung once for a meeting. So, I decided to take a stroll ‘upstairs’.
I walked down the hallways of the 13th floor, passing by the big-wig creatives who boasted their experience with cardboard cutouts of Morris the Cat and Jolly Green Giant hanging by their doors. 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.
I started to shy away, but they’d already seen me. The man at the typewriter interviewed me for my very job, so I spoke to him.
“I’m Carol Williams.”
“Jim Gilmore. Come on in.”
I leaned against a file cabinet and listened to them lament about their assignment to launch a line of biscuits, Pillsbury Best, to compete with toast. But none of these men had ever heard of breakfast biscuits. They even found it absurd.
I was shocked. 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.
‘Nothing is quite as good as biscuits in the morning, it’s Pillsbury’s Best time of day.’
I walked that line upstairs to Jim Gilmore the next day. He was still staring at his blank typewriter, only now he was alone. I handed him the paper.
It took him a moment to really read it, but when he did, he stopped everything he was doing and peered at me.
“You wrote this?”
“That’s a damn good line.”
The next morning was typical Chocolate City: the reading, the waiting, a small radio playing music in the background. Suddenly the radio cut off and a hush spread around the cubicles. I barely got ahold of what was happening when I turned around to Jim Gilmore standing in my cubicle.
“They bought your line,” he said. “Come upstairs tomorrow morning. I have another assignment for you.”
There was only a moment to revel in that remark: that the best and brightest of advertising had bought my line to head a campaign, all based on a poor Black family’s Sunday breakfast.
Soon after I was back upstairs, writing from my heart and my experiences.
Initially, I may not have had a place at the table, but I took a seat anyway and I’ve had one ever since. At times, it’s been at the head.
Valerie Graves is the former chief creative officer of Leo Burnett’s Vigilante, the UniWorld Group and Motown Records. Currently a creative consultant and author of Pressure Makes Diamonds, she began her career at D’Arcy in 1974.
I’ll always remember the 1980s as the decade my situation in advertising took the giant leap from ‘Black professional’ to ‘professional Black’.
In 1980, I cruised home to the Motor City with my career solidly in second gear. Having spent three years in Boston acquiring experience in banking, packaged goods and chain restaurants to complement my Detroit car chops, I easily landed a job at Ross Roy, an old-school Detroit agency looking to burnish its stuffy image with hip moves like hiring a Black copywriter.
Ross Roy was the fourth agency I joined as the shop’s only Black creative professional. However, Ross Roy’s Black vice-president, two administrative assistants and data processor set it apart from my two previous agencies, K&E and BBDO; there, I had been the only Black, period.
At Boston-based K&E, in fact, I had enjoyed the dubious honor of being the sole Black professional in the entire city.
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’.
Sometimes, hearing him tell someone, “You need to meet Val Graves, she’s dynamic!” I would think, she sounds great, I’d like to meet her myself. Still, in the 1980s, in was in, and kind of like [Roots’] Kunta Kinte, who became Toby, I made peace with being renamed by a white man, put my head down and did the work.
Doing the work paid off. Big time. The 1980s were still an era when agencies with car accounts gave free cars to valued employees, and when I made vice-president after three years of doing memorable work on difficult accounts, I got my wheels, company stock and five-figure line of credit, just like a white guy.
But unlike the white guy, vice-president was not my steppingstone to the upper echelons of senior management, and I knew it. As a 34-year-old Black professional, I was already a success and a role model, and the ad industry of the 1980s expected me to be satisfied.
Black professional, meet glass ceiling.
It’s been said that first people want success, then they want success on their own terms. Even before I knew I wanted it, trailblazing entrepreneur Byron Lewis offered me just that.
His proffer of a job at the African American-targeted agency UniWorld was pitch perfection: “Join me, and there is no limit to how high you can rise. Come work with everyone who is anyone in Black America. Come where your intelligence is assumed, and your talent is celebrated.”
Like most Black professionals in general market positions in the 1980s, I felt great trepidation – justifiably so, it turned out – that I might never be offered another general market job. But UniWorld’s blue-chip client list (AT&T, Burger King, Colgate, Ford, 7Up and more) convinced me to abandon my fears and plunge into an advertising reality that was both familiar and totally unknown.
From my first day at UniWorld I knew I was home. Byron summoned me to a conference room to meet tennis legend Arthur Ashe, who was soliciting our help to bring his sport to inner-city kids. My first project, a General Foods-sponsored campaign to support Black colleges, allowed me to highlight the story of Mary McLeod Bethune, the educator who funded a college by selling sweet potato pies, and after whom my elementary school had been named.
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.
When I entered advertising, I found my profession. In multicultural advertising, I discovered my calling.
Derek Walker is the founder of Brown and Browner Advertising, based in Columbia, South Carolina. He started out his career in the mid-1990s, first as a copywriter at Cramer-Krasselt.
Cramer-Krasselt in Milwaukee was on a roll when I arrived fresh out of the Portfolio Center.
As a matter of fact, advertising was still on a roll. Markets like San Francisco, Portland, Minneapolis, Seattle and little old Milwaukee were holding their own creatively against the bigger advertising markets.
Agency life was different. The offices (and many of us had offices) were alive with music and conversations. It was nothing to see teams sitting in an office together working and playing for hours. The idea of teams was at the core of our business.
Still, being a Black creative was ‘interesting’.
During my time in Milwaukee, I was the only Black creative in the city. 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’.
“I thought the picnic was for employees only?” the account executive said to me as I stood in the food line of our agency picnic.
“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.
The 90s ruined me for today’s production practices and values. Radio and TV production was a different world. We would spend a day recording three radio spots. They were funny and daring. My very first had music written by the Oscar-winning Peter Buffet. If only I had known then what I know now.
The 90s was the end of an era for advertising.
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.
On the diversity front, we lost a lot of ground. Many of the Black people who I knew in other markets at other agencies started to be pushed out or ‘encouraged’ to leave the industry. There weren’t that many of us, so the loss stood out even more.
Many became eternal freelancers or moved to the client side. The few C-suite Black advertising professionals – those 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.
Shameka M Brown is co-founder and executive coach at The Only One There. She began her advertising career at Foote, Cone & Belding (FCB) in 1999.
I was raised to believe that hard work was all it took to succeed. But 20 years later, I realized that wasn’t the case.
In 1999, I graduated in the second class of the new ad school phenom, the VCU Brandcenter. It took me six months to finally land at FCB.
Honestly, I was less than thrilled because I had set my sights on a smaller shop, like Hampel/Stefanides. But I was starting to feel the pressure from my southern parents to “stop being so picky and take any job with benefits” and, anyway, the headhunter thought it was a good fit. So I took it.
Upon starting, the vibe was weird. I entered after a huge bloodletting. Lots of senior execs had been let go. And I was part of the “new blood” brought in to bring new thinking.
After the layoffs, some of the remaining groups were seemingly formed at random, placing two people together with nothing more in common than needing to keep their jobs. I was placed into one of those. What also remained was a largely homogenous boys’ club made up of mid-senior level men.
By the end of my first month, I realized that I was one of two Black people in a creative department of more than 180. Larry Harris was the other one. I literally became his shadow until he was promoted within a few months of my arrival to run a new department called ‘digital’.
And so, I became the only one there. Aside from the general optics, I didn't feel ‘othered’. It was hard work, but seemingly fair. Within months, I had identified another group that was doing work I admired. So, my partner and I did double duty until we could officially switch into theirs.
To say we seized the opportunity would be an understatement: we killed it.
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.
Then, 9/11 happened. The world stopped. The grind slowed down. And people realized there was more to life than advertising. In the two years that followed, it felt like the playing field had leveled. The best work made it to the meeting, and oftentimes, it was ours.
By 2003, I was promoted to vice-president, senior copywriter. But as I approached the associate creative directive level, business as usual returned. After a rocket-like trajectory, my creative director sat me down and told me I didn’t have “it.” It took a while for me to comprehend this because I had just had “it” a year before.
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.
Around that time, my doctor strong advised me to consider starting our family. He suspected endometriosis and waiting another year could have meant not having kids at all. So, with the promotion out of reach, I turned my attention to starting my family.
After giving birth, I took an extended maternity leave to help deprogram my ‘work above all else’ mentality – because I really had always chosen work over everything else. I also wanted to stay out long enough to be replaced on my accounts and be assigned to new clients.
But as I prepped for my return, it was clear that I had changed and the business had not. So, I decided to move on and freelance.
Recently, a former colleague brought it to my attention that some in the department questioned whether or not my success had been because I was Black. As if it had been some kind of affirmative action play. 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.
20 years later, that comment still stung. I can only imagine what it would’ve felt like to hear it back then.
Gabrielle Shirdan is vice-president, creative director at McCann New York. She landed her first job at Philadelphia’s LevLane in the early 2010s.
I knew early in my life what I wanted to make out of it.
That’s an honor I don’t take for granted: I was just nine years old when I wrote that I wanted to be in advertising. Perhaps it was Halle Berry in Boomerang or that ‘Freestyle’ Nike ad, but I really just wanted to be an artist and a leader like my mother.
Somewhere between studying creative writing at Penn and Professor Huerhnergarth’s Intro to Advertising class, I knew this industry was where I belonged. 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.
But gushing with ambition, a little “please, give me a chance” and with my mother’s lessons in tow, I made the case. They let me in. Two semesters and a campaign later, I went from being an intern to being offered a full-time position my sophomore year.
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.
Watching my single mother build a business from our dining room table taught me to see the ‘cool’ in challenges. That’s why I love it. But somewhere between eager intern and vice-president, creative director, I have realized the greatest challenges I'm facing aren’t on the brief, but rather in the boardroom.
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.
My presence presents a new narrative. I’ve had the privilege to work across the gamut of global brands from Cadillac to Coca-Cola to General Mills to Microsoft, but the one brief I have yet to crack is the call to action for our industry to get out of the way for culture, and to understand that they won’t always understand.
The further I go in my career, the more I realize 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.