LET BLACKS PITCH MAINSTREAM BIZ

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Why don't major advertisers give minority ad agencies a shot at handling their mainstream campaigns?

KFC Corp. got "We do chicken right" from its minority agency, then handed it off to its main shop. And in stop-the-press news in the minority community, Mars awarded its general market account for 3 Musketeers candy bar to a minority agency. But those are exceptions.

It doesn't seem very smart to relegate minority talent to handling ads aimed at their own particular ethnic persuasion. After all, pop culture trends such as music and fashion start in the black community and later on infiltrate the broader population. You'd think advertisers pursuing Generation Xers would want to latch on to trends before they become widely known; black agencies can help here.

And blacks are not only adept at creating trends in their own circles, but they've had to be close observers of what's happening in the white community.

William T. Gray III, president-CEO of the College Fund/UNCF, made this point the other night at the salute to Afro-American ad agencies dinner sponsored by the American Advertising Foundation. Mr. Gray said, "Black folks have been watching white folks" for decades because it was necessary to do so to survive and get ahead in white society.

Because of their ongoing observations of white Americans, blacks understand the lifestyles, attitudes and behavior of whites better than whites understand themselves, Mr. Gray contended.

So why not give black agencies an opportunity to pitch mainstream accounts? Let them compete against the white agencies, especially since white agencies are beginning to go after ethnic business.

Part of the problem is that black agencies-let's be frank-mostly employ black employees, so they are positioning themselves as an ad agency with ethnic expertise. Of course, the mainstream agencies mostly employ whites, and it remains to be seen if that hiring practice will hurt them in soliciting business aimed at black consumers.

As Ken Smikle, publisher of Target Market News, reminded me, general market agencies are pursuing ethnic markets because "there isn't a general market anymore." Consumer products are becoming a series of niche markets, and black agencies have had plenty of experience carving out niches.

Of course, as Byron Lewis, group chairman of UniWorld (the agency that got the Mars general assignment), rightly said at the dinner: "If the mainstream agencies used Afro-Americans properly, we wouldn't be at this podium."

The reality is that too often black agencies have been painted into an ethnic corner. Technology has leveled the playing field for large and small agencies, and shops of any size now can handle substantial accounts.

Let's see if there's room for black agencies on that playing field, too.

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