Gray's day to shine

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On one of his forays into Indian country to shoot commercials for G&G Advertising, legendary director Joe Pytka was honored with the Indian name Flying Eagle.

Michael Gray, the 34-year-old president and owner of the only full-service American Indian ad agency, arranged for a medicine man to conduct the naming ceremony after Mr. Pytka filmed the agency's Census 2000 spots in Montana. Also sitting around the tepee was David Ken-nedy, the retired co-founder of Wieden & Kennedy, who introduced the two men and has been an unofficial mentor to Mr. Gray, encouraging him to open his own agency. "He gave me the boot to the butt," Mr. Gray recalls cheerfully.

G&G's $6 million chunk of the $100 million Census 2000 ad effort put the Albuquerque, N.M.-based agency on the Madison Avenue map, enabling Mr. Gray to pick up more accounts through word-of-mouth, though not all the attention was welcome. Mr. Gray started his shop back in 1992 as a design business called Gray & Gray, and it evolved into an ad agency in 1995. The census account brought Gray & Gray to the attention of Grey Advertising and a demand to change his agency's name.

"On Christmas Eve, I was served with papers," Mr. Gray says. Faced with fighting a lawsuit in New York against a multinational agency group, Mr. Gray shortened his agency's name to G&G in June 1998 but has gotten a lot of mileage out of the story.


"It's a sad day in America," Mr. Gray told one American Indian publication, "when you have to give up your own family name, especially when your relatives have already given up so much."

Raised on a reservation in Montana, Mr. Gray traces his heritage to the Blackfoot and Chip-pewa/Cree tribes and has a degree in advertising from Oregon State University. Both his father Gerald, a former superintendent of an Indian boarding school, and his brother Gerald Jr., who used to teach fifth grade, are on the agency's 15-person staff.

Most of their work is government-funded or PSA-related. WPP Group's Y&R Advertising, New York, the general-market agency G&G worked with on promoting participation in the U.S. Census, later hired the agency for the American Indian portion of Philip Morris Cos.' smoking-prevention campaign. In the three Pytka-directed spots that broke in October, Indian teens who have rejected smoking are deeply engaged in activities from basketball to beautifully shot shawl dancing.

"We walk in two worlds," Mr. Gray says. "One is a very traditional world, with ceremonies and traditions. We also wear suits and ties. Kids want to see themselves. Some clients want to stick a feather in, as I call it. But you can show them just being kids. They can relate to it."

Mr. Gray has seen a smattering of private-sector interest. The agency did some brochures for Wells Fargo Bank and tested point of purchase for Coca-Cola Co.


Mr. Gray educates clients about an Indian constituency that includes more than 550 tribes, two-thirds of which have newspapers and radio stations. "It's the million-dollar market," he says. "It doesn't cost much to get in."

An Arizona radio station that reaches 300,000 Navajos charges just $4 per spot, and an ad in the 100,000-circulation weekly Indian Country costs less than $2,000, he says.

Because there are so many Indian languages, often with very few speakers, ads are in English, though radio-show hosts may be given scripts of spots and encouraged to use their tribal language.

TV ratings systems don't specifically measure Indian audiences, but spot TV is commonly bought in cities with large Indian populations, like Albuquerque and Santa Fe, N.M., and Denver, Mr. Gray says. "Walk-er, Texas Ranger" is a popular buy.

More of G&G's $8 million in billings is coming from general-market business. Print ads have just broken for the New Mexico Holocaust Museum. Above representations of stark piles of skeletal bodies of Holocaust victims, a one-word euphemism for their slaughter appears next to the number of deaths: "Evacuated-75,103" and "Resettlement-229,052."

"It reminded me of the Indian experience," Mr. Gray says.

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