Keith Cartwright's Turn From Fine Art to Advertising

And What the Creative Chief Thinks About Black Culture

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Keith Cartwright
Keith Cartwright
In honor of Black History Month, Ad Age caught up with a number of marketing and advertising executives for a Q&A. The third in the series is Keith Cartwright. Mr. Cartwright, formerly a group creative director at the Martin Agency, is now creative chairman of an as-yet-unnamed agency in San Francisco that he founded with Allison Johnson, a former Apple VP-worldwide marketing communications, and former Katalyst head of digital Sarah Ross.

AA/Creativity : How did you first get into/discover advertising?

Mr. Cartwright: I attended Syracuse University with the intent of becoming a fine artist. I was going to focus on painting with a possible minor in printmaking. Right before I declared my major I had a brief conversation with a professor from the school of art and design who in about 10 minutes sold me on his program. I changed majors that day. He's been a mentor ever since.

AA/Creativity : What did your parents think about your decision to pursue it?

Mr. Cartwright: My father's a minister and my mother's a speech pathologist. Their biggest fear was that I not become a stuttering atheist. They've always have been incredibly supportive.

AA/Creativity : Who are your heroes/role models in the business? Are any of them African American?

Mr. Cartwright: Well aside from Alma and Arthur Cartwright, I'd have to say Dan [Wieden]. You cannot look at that company, over the past 30 years, on so many levels, and not admire what they've created.

Now, Dan's not black -- although he told me once he wanted to be.

AA/Creativity : What do you think about the diversity issue in ad land today? Has it changed from say, five years ago?

Mr. Cartwright: I think the conversation has changed and people are much more aware than five years ago. That said, the numbers across the board are still anemic. I think The New York Times reported last year that minorities make up less than 5% of the industry. I don't think those numbers represent a fair representation of people we're marketing to. I think in order to breed creativity you need diversity -- a diversity of experience, a diversity of cultures, a diversity of beliefs. All these things bring valuable perspectives that change the way you think about a problem.

AA/Creativity : Have you ever worked at an African-American shop? Do you see those sticking around, or do you think the trend is toward smaller, "urban" or even "youth" shops?

Mr. Cartwright: I think there are some great cultural agencies popping up, but I don't necessarily see those as black agencies. In a lot of ways, right now, black culture is seen as pop culture. I think what we're seeing is a response to where pop culture is leaning. It's more of an overall sign of the times than a trend in my opinion.

AA/Creativity : Have you ever had any problems in the industry related to being African American? If so, what did you learn from them?

Mr. Cartwright: As a creative there's some solace in the fact that your work generally proceeds or even defines who you are. I've spent my career focusing on that . Have others had a problem with me, sure, but that 's their problem…

AA/Creativity : What are your thoughts on African Americans and entrepreneurialism in advertising/marketing? Do you feel there's plenty of opportunity?

Mr. Cartwright: Reid Hoffman (the co-creator of Linked-in) just came out with a book called "The Start-Up in You." Great book that focuses on our times right now and how we need to stop looking at ourselves as labor and start building our own brands -- which doesn't necessarily mean finding office space. Entrepreneurialism is a way of thinking. It's an approach to life. There's so much going on right now in media and tech, I think it's a great time for anyone to start a company regardless of race.

AA/Creativity : How have your own entrepreneurial efforts fared so far -- what are the biggest lessons you've learned so far from your new gig?

Mr. Cartwright: It's been incredible, but I think a bit too early to get retrospective.

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