Vince Cullers founded the first African-American-owned full-service advertising agency in the U.S. with the help of his wife, Marian, in 1956. His interest in advertising was sparked when he attended the Art Institute of Chicago and studied business at the University of Chicago.
Establishing an agency was not an easy task in an era when the number of African-Americans working in advertising was extremely small. But Mr. Cullers found that white clients were not inclined to spend money to reach the black market, and some didn't even believe it existed. Still, he was dedicated to the proposition that "selling black" required "thinking black" to reach black consumers, who had an estimated $28 billion in annual disposable income in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
The agency's big break occurred in the mid-1960s, when it landed its first national accounts, Lorillard's Viceroy and Kent cigarette brands. Around the same time, the agency won Bristol-Myers' Bufferin account.
The late 1960s and early 1970s saw the advent of one of the agency's most memorable campaigns, for Johnson Products Co.'s Afro Sheen. The campaign, "Watu-Wasuri" (Swahili for "beautiful people"), pictured blacks showing their pride in their families and their heritage at a time when black people were just beginning to have a sense of their own identity.
Mr. Cullers used his pioneering agency to educate, employ and interest other African-Americans in the field of advertising. By the late 1990s, the agency had grown to a staff of 25 employees and reported annual billings totaling $18 million. In May 1997, the agency announced the promotion of Jeffery B. Cullers, Vince Cullers' son, from VP-group account director to president of the agency; Vince Cullers remained as chairman-CEO.
At the start of the 2lst century, the agency's largest client was BP Amoco, a company that had been with Cullers since 1985. It also had won several Communications Excellence to Black Audiences Awards for TV, radio and magazine advertising. The agency had successfully resisted the trend of achieving growth by being acquired by a larger, usually mainstream, agency.
Known as "The Dean" of African-American advertising, Mr. Cullers retired in 2002, and the agency reorganized as the Vince Cullers Group under leadership of his son, Jeffrey. Following a long illness, Mr. Cullers died in Oct. 4, 2003, at age 79.