Once again, Ad Age is excited to honor Black History Month by celebrating moments of creative excellence from the diverse array of Black creators in the industry. Each week, we will be tapping some of the industry’s most respected leaders to serve as guest editors. They will begin the week by highlighting a pivotal project in their career as a creative. For each day thereafter, the guest editor will select other notable execs and creatives to discuss a project of their own. Ultimately, through these personal moments of creative excellence and pride, our hope is to illustrate the wide-ranging influence and impact that Black talents—from longtime leaders to up and comers, from directors to designers and more—have in advertising, marketing and beyond.
To kick off this year’s event, we are honored to have Danny Robinson, The Martin Agency’s chief creative officer as our first guest editor.
Robinson started at the agency as a creative director in 2004, rising the ranks to becoming the shop’s first chief client officer in 2018. In 2021, he stepped into his current post at the creative helm. Last year, with its stellar work for clients including DoorDash, CarMax, Geico, UPS, Mondelez and Unilever, The Martin Agency ranked among the country’s best agencies at No. 8 on Ad Age’s 2021 A-List.
But even before Robinson arrived at the shop, he made his mark at the agency he co-founded, Vigilante, which was known for deftly tapping into pop culture to create memorable marketing moments, including the Pontiac G6 giveaway on “Oprah.” Here, Robinson recalls how an insight about Black culture became the heart of an incisive yet charming ad for one of Vigilante’s clients, Heineken.
Also see: 2021’s Black History Month Celebration of Creative Excellence
In 1998, I had the rare and fortunate opportunity to start my own ad agency. The chance came about following work I did as a freelancer for Leo Burnett on behalf of their client, Reebok. The project, which Leo’s chief creative officer led, ended in an offer to form a joint venture with Burnett. Their idea was to open a freestanding, East Coast agency designed to do something they admittedly “weren’t very good at”—create communication for young, culture-bending, urban-dwelling consumers who were trendsetters of fashion, entertainment, and cuisine worldwide. We named it Vigilante, and I was its CCO.
Like Jed Clampett discovering oil, the whole thing was entirely unexpected. And like the Clampetts, I was unprepared for what was to come.
It was rumored that a high-ranking creative at Leo Burnett commented that there was no way I should be a chief creative officer. Hearing that was an openhanded smack upside my confidence largely because the sentiment was accurate.
Seriously. In what world can someone go from working in a small promotion agency in a New York suburb to leading a national ad agency located in the dopest neighborhood in Manhattan overnight?
If I had stopped to think about it, I would have realized I was in over my head. The operative word is "if." Lucky for me, I didn't have time to stop—or think. I only had time to do.
Heineken was one of Vigilante's early clients, and we were working alongside the global agency which had created some of the brand’s best work under the tagline, “It’s all about the beer.” Vigilante's role was creating ideas within the brand's construct using insights that spoke directly to a decidedly hipper and specifically a Black beer drinker.
“The Nod,” which launched in 2003, was one of a half dozen commercials I conceived and wrote, and it is also one of my favorites.
At the heart of the spot was an insight that a simple head nod, used primarily by Black men—even between strangers—is a universal form of communication. It’s our non-verbal version of “aloha”; it’s commonly used as a simple greeting but has a more profound cultural significance. I used the insight to craft a story without words—just music, a few brothers, a DJ, a bartender, one woman and a couple of beers.
At that time, I knew very little, if anything, about big-budget productions for multimillion-dollar brands. However, I did know that I had insights about a consumer who loved the brand but was also underrepresented in its advertising. I knew that I had stories to tell that weren’t being told. I knew that with help, I could make something special, unique, and meaningful in a way others either hadn’t or couldn’t.
I knew this was my chance to prove some people wrong and, more importantly, prove to myself that I was supposed to be exactly where the ad gods had placed me.