Jimmy Smith on Race, Police, Advertising and Optimism
Editor's Note: In the past few years, marketers and agencies have grown comfortable taking stands about sometimes controversial topics, including mass shootings and terror attacks. But in the wake of recent police-related shootings and the attack on police in Dallas and Baton Rouge, the industry has been mostly silent. It's understandable. Race in America is still the toughest thing for us to talk about. We often talk about talking about it -- let's have a conversation, let's raise awareness. But we thought we'd reach out to a few African-American industry leaders and ask their thoughts on recent events. Their answers were refreshingly frank and honest. In print, we ran excerpts. Online we're running their answers at length.
Below are the answers from Jimmy Smith, Chairman-CEO and CCO of Amusement Park Entertainment. (Here are the answers from Translation's Steve Stoute, 135th Street Agency's Shante Bacon and MING's Tara DeVeaux. This might make some people uncomfortable, but you say you want to have a dialogue, there is the only way to start: by listening. -- Ken Wheaton
What's your personal take on what's happened with the shooting by police officers and the shooting of police officers?
Jimmy Smith: My feelings about the police are complex.
Uncle Dave was a police officer in Gary, Indiana. And my cousin was a detective in the ATL.
Got fond memories of those cats in blue.
From ages 5-18 I grew up in a lily-white town in Michigan. It was kinda like Mayberry. And in my mind, the police were the dopest cats on the planet. I should have been under the jail for all of the stupid stuff I was doing, but these white cops -- all of 'em were white -- would take my black butt, dust me off and tell me don't do it again.
One time my friends and I were drinking and driving. (I know. I was an idiot in the '70s.) The white cops pulled us over, took our beer, took us to the police station, and instead of locking us up, they rolled out the basketball. We hooped for over two hours. The white cops finally came out of their offices, "Are y'all sober, yet?" We said, "Yop!" The cops let us go, told us to go home.
To this day, I don't know their names.
But I loved those dudes.
I used to never, ever fear police officers.
Then I moved to Chicago.
It got real then. Never forget it. I was standing on the train platform with my wife, and a white cop grabbed me from behind and almost yanked my arm out of socket. I wasn't doing ANYTHING but waiting on the train. Dude thought I had jumped the turnstile. He cursed me out. I cursed him out. The white man working the turnstile said, "That's not him." The cop, of course, didn't apologize, but he let me go.
It was interesting. In small town Michigan, the white cops were dope. I was perceived as just a good kid who did stupid stuff, just like the white cops probably did when they were kids.
But in Chicago, I was definitely looked upon as a criminal and someone to be feared. Even though I had never gotten anything more than just one stinking speeding ticket.
Now, in the 21st century, my brother's had white cops put guns up to his head. My wife's been harassed. And my youngest son almost had the car I bought him (a Volvo) taken away, because the white cop couldn't believe it was his car.
So, like I said, my feelings about cops are complex.
But here's what I think is happening. I know it may be hard to believe, but I actually believe we are winning. And by "we" I mean people of color and non-racists. I believe what's taking place is the last vestiges of the American old guard power structure. We're much closer to having the America we've always dreamed of than ever before. Where America is truly a place for all of us -- white, black, brown, yellow, you name it.
I may sound cray-cray, but hear me out.
What happened during WWII?
When Hitler saw his empire dwindling, he got extremely desperate. His decision making became more and more irrational and desperate. His actions were also deadly (i.e., the V2 rocket). But by then, the war was won. He just didn't know it.
Japan did the same thing. Those kamikaze missions were insane. Scary. Deadly. But it didn't change anything. The war was over.
I believe once President Obama took office, it signaled that the browning of America was real for racists. No matter what the statistics stated decades ago, no matter how chocolate the NBA, NFL and Washington D.C. became, it didn't get real for racists until President Obama took office.
Once that happened, racists were like, "WHAT THE FUCK?!?!?!? FUCK THAT SHIT!!!"
That's when stuff got real for them.
And now we're seeing all of these hideous acts committed by some cops who KNOW they're racists, and just as hideous acts by politicians and citizens who turn a blind eye or who act like it must have been justified.
Regardless, the numbers don't lie. More people of color are coming. More people of color will be voting.
The war is over.
However, non-racists and people of color can't rejoice … yet.
Just like in WWII, we (people of color and non-racists) still gotta fight to finish it.
Mop-up duty can still be extremely deadly, unfortunately.
How does this affect the staff at an ad agency? What do you say to your people?
Mr. Smith: I didn't have to say much, because we had already had this discussion way back in 2015.
You see, when Amusement Park Entertainment and Amusement Park Inc. became one, the former DGWB was mostly white and Amusement Park Entertainment was mostly black. So, discussions about race just naturally happened.
Then Harman allowed us to delve into the topic of race for their JBL Pulse II speaker. The commercial featured Stephen Curry, and it lightly brushed the topic of race. However, the music video featured NBA star Damian Lillard rapping about police brutality, Mike Brown's homicide, racial hate crimes, the taking down of the Confederate flag in South Carolina, etc.
The video is called "Bigger Than Us," and it debuted on TNT on Martin Luther King, Jr Day. The creative team, Joe Pytka, the producers, musicians, account folks (a collection of whites and blacks, browns and yellows) worked on that project for months.
Because we had to discuss and pour over that footage over and over and over and over, again, plus, hear the lyrical content over and over and over, again, the white folks got it. So, when the police killed Mr. Philando Castile and Mr. Alton Sterling, everyone in the office had a much deeper understanding of what that type of evil was.
You didn't hear any stupid questions like, "Do you think they really killed him because he was black?"
Ditto with the tragedy in Dallas.
Evil is evil. No matter your skin color.
Is this the sort of thing the ad agency community can tackle?
Mr. Smith: Hell yes, an agency should tackle racism! Obviously, one of the ways we tackled it was with "Bigger Than Us."
We're also working with MAL4GOOD and Lee Clow on a major project that tackles similar issues.
The question isn't whether ad agencies should tackle racism and police brutality or not. Agencies absolutely should. But before agencies do tackle the problem, it probably would be a good idea to tackle the racial injustices taking place everyday in their own offices.
Oftentimes, the best place to make amends is at home.