Black History Month: an interview with Roy Eaton

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It's Black History Month again and for 28 shorts days, sandwiched between our favorite shows and sporting events, we'll be blitzed with stories of African American accomplishments. The intention is keep moving the needle to equality by celebrating the accomplishments of black men and women throughout our lifetime. These stories have always been close to my heart and have helped inspire me throughout my this year I decided to seek out and share the accomplishments that black people have made in our business, the achievements that have made a significant impact.

Enter Mr. Roy Eaton, the first black creative in a general market agency – Young & Rubicam (according to my research, at least). He's 80 years old today and still lives in NYC, but in 1955 he was our industry's version of Jackie Robinson.

The son of Jamaican immigrants, Mr. Eaton grew up in a modest home in Harlem, NY. During his youth, he lived through two periods of history that greatly influenced the rest of his life: the devastation of the Great Depression and, the boom of Jazz in his neighborhood, Sugar Hill. The first gave him his tenacity to live life to the fullest, and the second - well, this left an impression on him that lead to his playing piano in Carnegie Hall in the late 30s, and in the early 1950s, earning the Kosciuszko Foundation Chopin Award.

Then came the Korean War and everything changed. Following a two-year stint in the U.S. Army, he had no choice but to find a full-time job in 1955. At the time getting any full-time job as a black person in this country was difficult, but that never stopped him. He followed a questionable lead to go to a college placement agency on 42nd street in NYC, and thus began his journey into this wonderfully crazy bunch of business misfits that we've all come to know and love.

I called Roy to discuss what it was like for him being black during a time of the real Mad Men of Madison Avenue. We talked about his work and how he used advertising to speak to the masses at a time when blacks didn't have a voice; the feelings of loneliness he often felt at being the "only one" at times; and about music and its influence on our industry back then. Based on everything I learned, I decided to take this opportunity to call this month Advertising's Black History Month. And here's a story of one of its native sons. Enjoy.

Geoff: Roy, what was day one like for you as an African American man at Young & Rubicam?

Roy: I was fortunate enough to be there at a time when there were a lot of creative people, good people, and loving people. One unforgettable moment was when Ed Graham Jr., a creative director at Y&R and the man behind the famous Bert and Harry Piels Beer campaign, walked up to greet me cordially. He shook my hand and said to me, "Did you get your key?" I answered, "Which key?" And he replied, "The key to the men's room. You can use the one in the stairwell." There was an uncomfortable moment of silence between us followed by Ed laughing and saying, "There's only ONE men's room here!" He made me feel so at home. His greeting immediately and practically broke the color line.

Geoff: What work were you the most proud of doing?

Roy: I worked on several accounts at the agency, but the work I'm known for is Piels Beer, Texaco, General Electric, Kent cigarettes, and Gulf Crest, and the Beefaroni jingle that had kids singing for their suppers for a decade or so. For Kent Cigarettes, I knew there was a new filter innovation that they wanted to push, so I wrote music to convey the sense of newness and creativity. I got to work and crafted a jingle based on the modern jazz then being introduced by Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, and Thelonius Monk... it caught on because it was different from anything else at the time. The Kent Cigarette work aired as radio, and as live commercials during programs like the $64,000 Challenge. That program was like the Who Wants To Be A Millionaire of its day. Everyone watched it. Not to mention the fact that $64,000 was a lot of money at the time. As for my copywriting, one of the most effective campaigns that I worked on was for Gulf Crest gasoline. Gulf Crest wanted to expand to a larger market. I came up with the slogan, "Gulf Crest every 1,000 miles keeps your engine clean." which positioned the new super-premium gasoline not just for luxury cars, but as a tonic for all cars. The line was very well-received and the campaign escalated sales for the brand. The campaign line that I wrote for Texaco was something I'm proud of too: "You can trust your car to the man who wears the star".

(Advertising Age named that Texaco jingle from 1962 as the foundation for one of the twentieth century's top 100 creative campaigns.)

Geoff: How did you approach your work?

Roy: My approach to jingles was always to determine the style of the piece based on a sound marketing philosophy. At the time the only requirement for a jingle was that it be memorable. I thought that was stupid! They should be creative, centered around the benefit of the product, and strategic. That was my approach, and that's what defined the work that I did. I've always believed that music is a powerful force in connecting consumers to a product.

Geoff: You could have been anything you wanted to. Why advertising Roy?

Roy: One simple reason. I had to earn a living (laughter). I was drafted into the army during the Korean War. I worked at a hospital radio station for a while and during that time I'd come to NY every weekend to do the Soldier Parade, starring Arlene Francis. I learned the format for radio production. I wrote, produced, and made ads for radio while serving in the army. That experience helped me later in my advertising career.

Geoff: But your first love was music, right?

Roy: My first love is and will always be music. I'm a trained classical pianist, but for some reason I was always mistaken for a jazz musician or asked if I did jazzy jingles because of my race. I guess that's why I've always believed that music can change things. I wanted to be independent and not be pigeon-holed. My music and my talents allowed me that freedom. I've always wanted to do music and advertising allowed me to bring that voice and storytelling to the product world.

Geoff: Did you ever stop and say, I can't do this because I'm black?

Roy: I thought all the things that could make for an interesting copywriter I wasn't able to do because I was black - write, arrange, compose, and perform. That was until I met Charlie Feldman, a creative director at Y&R. He was open to giving me an opportunity to use all of my talents. He called me his Jackie Robinson. Charlie had broken down the lines of race years ago as a Jewish person in this business. He saw my talent and not my skin color and therefore gave me a chance to do what I love. Create.

Geoff: So you worked as a copywriter and a composer?

Roy: In my first 2 years working at Y&R, I created 75% of all the music produced there. And I also worked as a copywriter and composer. I guess you could say they got a good deal.

Geoff: It seems like the agency was like a family to you. Is that true?

Roy: Very much so, for example, I was in Utah traveling with my wife, and we were in a car accident. I lost my wife in that accident. The driver of the other car was killed too. I was spared. Something amazing happened minutes later: a New York Times reporter who was in Utah at the time doing a story found me roadside. He gathered my information and recognized that I was from NYC and immediately contacted Y&R. My creative director told him to get me to the nearest Emergency room, and that he would cover all of the medical costs. He also had specialists flown in to Utah to help me. He then personally jumped on a flight to Utah to sit bedside with me and supervise my recovery. Back in NY, the creative department raised $8,000 to contribute to my medical expenses because I at the time I hadn't yet registered for my medical coverage. I simply can't express the love and acceptance that I felt for Y&R and for my friends and colleagues there.

Geoff: What an amazing story, Roy. I'm speechless. Is there anything else you'd like to say?

Roy: I feel that we have a responsibility and an opportunity as creatives and story-tellers. I believe that we hold the keys to the consciousness of the world, and that we should use it for good and never take it for granted.

For more information on Roy, and myself, look out for the book by NY Times bestselling author Tanner Colby, Some of My Best Friends are Black, A History of Racial Integration In America, due out in Spring 2012.
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