Carol H. Williams on life as a black woman in advertising

Hall of Famer spills her secrets, discusses her famed campaigns and her life at Leo

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For years, Carol H. Williams turned down invitations to join the Advertising Hall of Fame.

"I wanted to be comfortable that I was a Hall of Famer, and that I was ready for it, because becoming a Hall of Famer is about the highest honor that you can get," says Williams, who was finally inducted in 2017. "Once you become [one], it's time to transition. You cannot just stand there and be the Hall of Famer. Now what are you going to do?"

She's doing plenty. Williams runs her own eponymous agency with offices around the country that serves a roster of blue-chip clients, but she's best known as the first female and first African-American creative director and VP at Leo Burnett, which she joined in 1969. And to celebrate International Women's Day, Williams will join five other famed adwomen at a May 5 event called "The Original Fearless Girls in Advertising." In a visit to Ad Age, Williams, a born storyteller, recalls for Ad Age some experiences in advertising that shaped her history-making career. The following has been lightly edited.

On Leo Burnett the man

I was about 19, 20 years old, I had just gotten hired at Burnett, and I remember writing a commercial for Hungry Jack Biscuits. I patterned it after an uncle of mine we all loved—this wayward kind of uncle who shows up whenever the food was on the table. My father would growl, "Why is he here? Why don't he go somewhere else and eat?"

It was called "Uncle Henry" and the way I wrote it, he would show up and the father would be sitting at the table with the look on his face of, "Oh my God, here he comes." Uncle Henry would go hang over the stove, look in the pots, sniff at everything, eat off anybody's plate that might have something there, with the father glowering and the mother loving it and happy, and all the kids just joyful because there's Uncle Henry with his wonderful sense of humor. And once the food is on the table the father would relax and smile and be glad that Uncle Henry is there and they'd have a wonderful family get-together.

The commercial went to what we call a creative review committee and got the thumbs-up. So, I'm standing in the Prudential building by the front door in Chicago, waiting for the word from the account guys. The account guys get back and say, "They didn't buy the commercial, go do another one," and walk on off. I'm standing there totally devastated; my life is over with, I'll never write another commercial again. It was just a horrible experience. I stood there, kind of just feeling total rejection, not understanding how it really worked, that you have to learn to lose as well as you win.

I remember getting on that elevator alone. The elevators were always packed at Burnett, always, and this one day there was no one on it. I got on the elevator and [it stopped on another floor] and in walked Leo Burnett. That was such a shock because, you know, he was always in the distance; you would hear him, you could feel him, and he was always that wonderful kind of round man that loved his cigars and was always very gracious. And he walked on the elevator.

It frightened me. I backed up against the wall. I don't know whether he saw that or not, or he probably felt it, being the kind of creative he was. He looked at me and took the cigar out of his mouth and he said, "Hello, Carol," which really, really shocked me, because Burnett had just tons of people working for it. I thought, "How could he possibly know my name? I'm a black kid from the South Side of Chicago with this stupid, rejected 'Hungry Jack' script. How could he know my name?"

I didn't say anything, I just looked at him. He looked back at me and he said, "How are you doing today?" I said, "Well, they just rejected my script," and next thing I knew, it was like I was on the couch at the psychiatrist's office, pleading for help that I wouldn't get fired because my script got rejected. That man looked at me and he told me, "Anybody who can write Uncle Henry can write anything they want." And the elevator door opened and he got off.

It was such an inspirational moment. I grew up right then. Leo Burnett knew my name and he knew my work.

On the creation of Secret's tagline, "Strong enough for a man, made for a woman"

I remember Charlie [Blakemore, a Burnett executive creative director] catching up with me in the hallway and saying, "I need you to work on something that nobody wants to work on. I need you to work on Secret antiperspirant." I was like, "Why does everybody get to work on Coke and Pepsi and United Airlines and fly to Hawaii and I've got to work on Secret?"

There are amazing opportunities we don't recognize as opportunities. Being able to create that campaign for Secret antiperspirant took my career to a whole other level.

They had all these guys working on this commercial and these guys would have these women run around in thin little dresses, going slow motion through the parks with the butterflies coming down and the sunlight twinkling down and everything.

I'd be like, "Who the hell are those women? I don't know any of them. We sweat, guys, and we don't want to look like we sweat." But after they had done all their day's work the women I knew would transform themselves into these beautiful, lovely creatures at night that looked like they didn't sweat at all. I felt that a lot of that insight should be embedded into why Secret was an efficacious antiperspirant made for women and why women should use that antiperspirant.

So, we created this story, this conflict, "Strong enough for a man, made for a woman." This was a woman having her own thing.

The ad became a transformative thing that people talked about—women taking ownership of who they were and having their own strength.

On casting the Secret ad

I cast African-Americans in two of the Secret commercials. I remember going back to the agency and one of my bosses said, "Who told you you could cast that commercial black?" I said, "Nobody. Did somebody need to tell me I could?" He looked at me and said, "I don't think they're going to put that on the air." I said, "Really? Well, we'll see." And P&G put it on the air and that antiperspirant went from No. 9 to No. 1 in six months.

On the #MeToo movement

Not to demean it, but I don't remember ever being intimidated by what is called "power" now. We didn't give a damn about that. I don't care what position you're in. These are my rules. You step over here in a way that is unacceptable, you're going to see the other side of my face and it's not pretty. That's the bottom line.

Only if you accept it as "this person has power over me" do they truly have power over you. It's one thing to have experienced it and dealt with it; it's another thing to have been a victim of it.

On creating a campaign for New Freedom sanitary napkins

I go in this room and there's a room full of men. A room full of men on a women's hygiene pad. They had drawn an animated pad and the strap at the bottom was the fishtail dress on the woman and the top one was her hair, going down her back. The pad had big red lips across and it had little spindly legs with heels on and it was dancing.

I walk out of the room and my boss says, "Carol, what do you think of the campaign they did?"

I said, "They got a dancing pad in there. The thing is moving. It can't move."

He says, "Yeah, it can move, they put legs on it."

I'm like, "You and I are not communicating here. This thing's got a problem. First of all, women do not want to be personified as a sanitary pad. Next of all, the thing can't move, I'm telling you." They just ignored me and they put the thing in test. Of course it bombed. They had to have something on the air in two minutes, right? Here they all come: "Create a campaign for us."

So that's when I created the New Freedom lady, which was this woman who was riding a horse or riding a bike or something and she was doing her thing. Being this outdoorsy, wonderful woman and not concerned with a pad moving.

On being a black woman in advertising in the '70s

Men did not know what to think. I was so different to them that it became a very powerful thing. And once you get wins under your belt, everybody wants to be associated with a winner. Most of them had never worked with a woman before. And by the time they recognized that it was real, I was already past home base.

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