On Sunday nights, before the school week began, I'd settle down to a cup of vanilla ice cream (remember the ones with the wooden dipstick and the fudge swirl?) and read the week's Ebony and Jet. That was the only place to track the progress of an eclectic cast of black entrepreneurial characters -- men like John Johnson (the publisher); Berry Gordy, who, of course, ran Motown; Earl Graves, publisher of Black Enterprise; and Russell Simmons, founder of Def Jam. I watched their businesses grow, studied how they maneuvered and took pride in their accomplishments.
One of the things I believe distinguished all of the aforementioned heroes is that they accepted the responsibility that came along with their stature. They created jobs for black talent, created respect in the industry for black-owned businesses and helped to favorably shape America's perceptions of black people.
Now, as a black owner of an advertising agency, I often think about how I contribute to the future of this industry.
The debate about the role of black-owned agencies has raged since Vince Cullers Advertising -- widely reported to be the first black agency -- opened its doors back in 1956. My thoughts on what that role is have led me to create five rules I think black-owned agencies should live by:
1. DO EXCEPTIONAL WORKSome companies make flat-screen televisions. Other companies make automobiles. Never forget that our product is creative. No matter how good the dinners you take your clients to are or how great the client management is, your creative product has to be best-in-class every single time.
Assume the expectation is that your product will be mediocre at best on the creative dimension, that it will be delivered late, and that it will be off-strategy. The most important, impactful thing you can do as a minority shop is to defy those expectations by delighting, shocking and amazing your clients every step of the way.
2. DON'T SETTLE FOR BLACK BUSINESSI've always liked options, so locking down viable opportunities doesn't make sense to me. At my shop, we love the opportunity to raise the bar when it comes to communications targeted at minorities. The advertising industry's difficulty in attracting black talent (and minority talent in general) is now close to legendary. To not use that perspective in the construction of compelling advertising intended for minority audiences is insanity.
But we don't settle for only "black" or "minority" pieces of business. When we're in a pitch, we're in it to win the whole account. We love to compete, and we always have a "take the hill" mentality.
And why not? We're smart. We're strategic. We've got an exceptional creative product. We are active participants in popular culture. Why shouldn't we believe that we are as capable as any other shop at creating communications for that culture?
3. DON'T GET CAUGHT IN THE CHUCK D TRAPBack in the late '80s, Public Enemy transcended the world of entertainment and became political and social icons. The problem was that the country anointed Chuck D the spokesperson for all black people. That was too tall a challenge even for one of the all-time greats.
It's both silly and insulting to assume that you can represent every black person's point of view. Even Barack Obama can't do that (LOL). We're marketers. Use your network and connections within the community to create, vet, learn and refine communications based on multiple perspectives and opinions.
4. DON'T KID YOURSELF; YOUR AGENCY DIDN'T JUST HAPPEN TO BE DIVERSEYou'll get the question many times over – "Are you a minority agency, or an agency that just happens to have minority talent?"
Let me tell you what. A couple of years ago, the Human Rights Commission of New York almost went to court with America's top agencies because, in a city where black people make up 25% of the population, less than 2.5% were represented in the professional ranks of ad agencies.
In my world, there is no "many of our employees just happen to be black" phenomenon happening. It takes a deliberate effort to find the best and the brightest minority talent. That talent is one of the most sought-after resources in America, and they have their pick of opportunities. Most of your prospective account strategists aren't going to say, "Yeah, I could go work at Goldman Sachs and make half a mil a year, but I'd rather come work for you, because you're black-owned." It doesn't happen that way 99% of the time. It's a dogfight out there for all of us.
5. WE DO HAVE AN OBLIGATION TO OUR OWNCall it what you want. If it's affirmative action, then I'm all for it. If it's preferential treatment, then I'm guilty as charged.
When aspiring black marketers come up to me (as they have on several occasions) and say that they are trying their damndest but can't seem to break into the industry, I take it personally. As long as they were willing to work hard, I'd give them all jobs if I could. As it stands, I try to find anything that might help give them a start -- even if it's part-time or project-oriented work, internships, a scholarship ... anything. I think the National Association of Black Accountants says it best with their tagline: "Lifting as we climb."
NON-NEGOTIABLESThese are my rules. I'm sure there are other perspectives and opinions, and I welcome them -- I love to debate. But I will not waste breath arguing two of these rules, because I see them as non-negotiable.
The first is always great creative. Always.
The second is recognizing our obligation to create real opportunities for future generations of great minority talent. Just like Vince Cullers did for us.