For years, there was the need to prove that our market existed and was worth talking to. This is why we have a multicultural marketing industry in the first place. That fight is not totally over, but we've made some major headway. So much so, that everyone is now paying attention to the market and seeing the opportunity within the urban marketplace (and wanting to add that to their bottom line).
And where there is money to be had, the competition will only get fiercer. General-market agencies in addition to urban shops will vie for pieces of urban business. Or clients will simply tell their current shops: "Get me urban." A couple of hires are made, and another urban shop is left out.
Now, this horse has left the gate. You can't turn it back any more than the old guard can turn back the browning of America and the global impact of urban culture. I'm not wistfully wishing for the good-old days, partially because I never really knew them.
As long as GTM has been in business, we knew the reality of being a black-owned agency. We could not dwell in an urban box because it's a dying model. Speaking to everyone isn't just a way to fatten the bottom line from general-market business -- it's really about survival at this point in the game.
For us, the acceptance of urban culture by mainstream America is a blessing and a curse. Back in the day, having a Black agency to speak to Black people was the way to go. Since hip-hop has exploded all the boxes and our culture has been mainstreamed, it's a lot more difficult to use that same rationale. Instead of more urban agencies being brought to the table as partners, the nibbling of the culture vulture has begun instead.
Culture vultures co-opt culture and take the cues they need, often leaving the substance behind. The depth or understanding of the culture is not there, but it's got just enough edge to make it past the client and into the market place. But they're only fooling themselves if they think this half-ass attempt is going to ring true with youth. These consumers can look at a bootleg sneaker and tell it's not the original; they can do the same with such shallow marketing.
This is simply Afrosheen. No, not the stuff you sprayed on your fro to keep it shiny. It's the sheen of urban sprayed on meager creative to give it an urban feel. The look of urban without any of those messy urban agency partners. What makes it even more complicated is that even some urban agencies have gotten really good at Afrosheen themselves, not diving any deeper than b-level celebrities and actors set in a club.
Don't let it happen to you! Here's a case study on how to avoid Afrosheen. A client comes along with a wack product and says, "Hey, make me cool!"
This is where you should pause and say, "OK, let's get some research going. Let's understand what's wrong with the product and why it's not moving in the marketplace." Do not say, "OK, let me get a shoot going. We'll get a rapper, some actors and some cool guys from the industry." Add hot girls, some jewelry, the veneer of coolness and what do you get? BAM! Afrosheen.
Pumping the brakes on clients that seek to merely co-opt our culture is only good business. The simpler we make the approach to our culture, the more we dumb it down, the more we make it easier for us to be replaced by anyone that can pick up the phone and get some b-level talent going and book a shoot.
Strategy, good old-fashioned understanding, relationships, hustle and above all, respect for our culture and people is a must for future survival. It's also smart business for the client.
I'll leave you with this clip that a member of the GTM family, IPO, sent to us under the title, "This is why I love Hip Hop." It's former Blink 182 drummer Travis Barker playing Soulja Boy's hit, Crank That.
By the way, this video has over 3.5 million views.
When I saw it, I felt him immediately. But to me, it simultaneously gave me hope for hip-hop and concern for our future. Urban culture's potential is limitless, but as it grows, will we grow with it? Let's make sure that we do.