Meet One of the Pioneering Blacks in the Ad Industry

Georg Olden's Career at BBDO, McCann Wasn't About Race -- Until the End

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Jason Chambers
Jason Chambers
Georg Olden was one of the first African-American executives in a major advertising firm. As detailed in the following edited excerpt from my book, "Madison Avenue and the Color Line: African-Americans in the Advertising Industry," he was a leading artist and graphic designer and won numerous major advertising awards. Although his name has been forgotten by many, he developed many of the graphical techniques that became standard in the TV and advertising industries.

Like many others in the industry, Georg Olden did not seem destined for a career in advertising. Born in Alabama in 1920, he was the son of a Baptist preacher and grandson of a former slave. After the nation entered World War II, Olden dropped out of Virginia State College and went to work as an artist for the Office of Strategic Services. During his time at the OSS, he worked with some of America's leading artists, designers and writers and made contacts that opened significant professional opportunities after the war.

When the head of the agency's communications division, Lawrence Lowman, returned to CBS after the war, he asked a former OSS colleague to recommend someone who "had a full grasp of the whole range of commercial-art techniques." He named Olden.

While at CBS, Olden was a successful and recognized art and graphics director. In his private time, Olden drew cartoons, several of which were published in The New Yorker. (During this time he dropped the "e" from his first name in order to garner more attention.) He also had the distinction of being one of the first blacks in an integrated advertisement: In 1951, he was featured in the "Men of Distinction" series for Calvert Distillers.

A rising star
Aside from being featured in an ad, before leaving CBS, Olden showed no interest in the advertising industry. So the record is silent as to why he chose to leave his position in 1960 to pursue work in an industry in which he had no experience. It is possible that, as a man of varied interests, Olden had simply grown bored at the network after having worked there for nearly 15 years. It is also possible that the potential for a salary increase proved irresistible. Regardless of his motivations, Olden found that agencies readily welcomed his talents. Within a few hours of making his desires known to a friend in the industry, he had received offers from three agencies. He chose to join BBDO as the TV group art supervisor.

Olden was a rising star at BBDO. In fact, he was rising so rapidly that he was actually recruited by other advertising firms. In 1963, he accepted an offer to move to McCann Erickson to become VP-senior art director. He was also part of the agency's exclusive Professional Advisory Council. He won several Clios for his work throughout the 1960s and first prize in the Cannes Film Festival in 1967. He also repeatedly won medals from the Art Directors Club of New York.

Despite his executive position and the mounting pressure on the advertising industry to increase the number of black employees, Olden was not involved in any efforts to increase the number of blacks in advertising. His record on racial progress is in some ways contradictory. On the one hand, he was involved with the Urban League, designing the organization's symbol of an equal sign on a black background. On the other, he argued that race was not the mitigating factor against success that others claimed. "Acceptance is a matter of talent," he said. "In my work I've never felt like a Negro." His disinterest in race was not lost on other blacks, who described him as arrogant and standoffish. Rather than emphasizing race, Olden argued that his success had come as a result of his talent and hard work.

Jason Chambers is an associate professor in the department of advertising at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He has presented his research into the African-American consumer market both nationally and internationally. His work has been published in books and journals in the United States, Asia and Europe.

The factor that Olden overlooked was that his talent was combined with a degree of opportunity and timing that many others, especially blacks, lacked. His talent led to his position at the OSS, and his connections from the agency led to the position at CBS. So, at only 25 years of age, with no experience in broadcasting, he was placed in charge of the artwork and graphic designs for a major network. From that position, talent and hard work carried him through promotions at CBS and in the advertising industry. Yet without his connections, he may have remained an overlooked and frustrated artist.

Still, criticism of what Olden "could have done" to open opportunities for other blacks must take into account the precarious nature of his position. He may very well have been the arrogant and standoffish man some described, but he was also one of only a handful of blacks at CBS and later BBDO and McCann Erickson. Certainly he was the only one of his professional rank at any of the three companies. A co-worker recalled that at CBS, Olden was one of only 12 blacks during the 1940s -- and all the others were porters. Olden had few chances for error. He could scarcely be the standard-bearer for racial progress when he knew that pressure for racial change might lead to his own dismissal. Further, in his professional life, he believed color had never been a particularly restrictive issue. "My own experience," he said, "has been entirely removed from race." In some interviews he noted that his experience as a black man in the 1940s and '50s was unique and that perhaps he had been "lucky."

Ironically, while he had long argued that race had not been a factor early in his career, it became one late in his professional life. In 1970, he was laid off from his position at McCann Erickson, a move the agency credited to the economic downturn then affecting the industry. Olden rejected the explanation. He sued the firm for wrongful termination based on the belief that he was the victim of racial discrimination. The Professional Advisory Council he had been part of had been dissolved and its members terminated. Some at the agency argued that the group was not giving the agency a return on investment equal to the high salaries of its members. In his lawsuit Olden did not contend the reasons behind McCann's dissolution of the PAC; instead he charged that upper executives had consciously prevented him from moving out of the group. He argued that a pattern of discrimination kept him near the professional level he occupied when he initially joined the agency. As a result, rather than being promoted to an upper-level executive position that would have placed him outside the scope of potential layoffs, he argued that agency leaders purposely restricted him from advancement. The explanation McCann leaders offered was simple: Olden never requested a transfer out of the PAC into a position that would lead to promotions to the upper levels of management. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission agreed with McCann that Olden's termination was valid and not racially motivated.

Largely forgotten
After losing the case, Olden moved to the West Coast, where he worked in a variety of positions, including TV director and freelance artist, until his death. He filed a class-action lawsuit against McCann Erickson on behalf of himself and other blacks who were allegedly victims of discrimination, but he was shot to death by a live-in girlfriend a few days before the opening of the case. For one whose professional life had begun with so much promise, by the end Olden was largely forgotten by his contemporaries, and he died still bitter over his dismissal from the advertising industry and loss of stature.

Nonetheless, Olden was one of the last black professionals who gained his position in advertising before civil-rights groups and government organizations turned serious attention toward the industry. In the coming years, blacks would continue to be hired on the basis of their talent or expertise, but their hiring came at a very slow pace. Although African-Americans had become more confrontational with issues of racism and discrimination by the late 1950s, the advertising industry avoided their scrutiny. Still, blacks' pressure on the TV industry foreshadowed their growing attention toward their image in the media and their impending attention to the advertising industry.

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