Black Voices that Changed Advertising

Advertising has historically been a disproportionately white space—in its messaging and in the demographics of creative studios and board rooms. But as in most unfairly white spaces, our industry has been propelled forward over the years by trailblazing Black lives and voices. These are the moments, leaders, and stories that should be canon in our advertising education, but we’re reeducating ourselves and learning about them now. 

As we examine history through this lens, we’ve put together a brief timeline of just a few of the many instances when Black people have impacted advertising:

  • 1940s The first Black agency, Vomack Advertising, was founded in Inwood, NY. In 1943, they were followed by David Sullivan in New York and Fusche, Young & Powell in Detroit. These agencies were primarily focused on selling products made by Black companies, targeting Black consumers, and promoted through Black media.
  • 1944 – In 1944, Moss Kendrix kick-started his career in public relations when he became the Director of PR for the Republic of Liberia’s Centennial Celebration. That same year, he founded the Moss Kendrix Organization in Washington, DC, where he helped major clients like Coca-Cola and Ford target Black consumers. Later, in 1953, he launched the National Association of Market Developers (NAMD) at Tennessee State University. The association is still in operation today.
  • 1940s-1960sThe launch of several Black-owned magazines, including Jet and Ebony, opened new doors for the employment and representation of Blacks in advertising in the 1940s and ‘50s. By the late ‘60s, the impact was felt across the industry, as 80 of the leading 100 national advertisers were advertising through Ebony. This was a huge step forward, though it’s important to note that pervasive stereotypes were still present: the majority of advertisements in these publications were for products like skin lighteners and hair straighteners.
  • 1955 – Roy Eaton became one of the first Black creatives at a general market agency when he was hired by Young & Rubicam as a copywriter and composer. In his first two years there, he produced 75% of the agency’s music and jingles.
  • 1945-1960s – Over his career, Georg Olden worked in the Creative Departments of BBDO, McCann-Erickson, and CBS. At CBS, he supervised the graphic design for programs like “I Love Lucy,” “Lassie,” and “Gunsmoke.” He even designed the Clio Award statuette, which he himself won seven times for art direction.
  • 1963 – The Urban League published the results of a three-year study, showing that just 25 Blacks held creative or executive positions in the top 10 advertising agencies in New York City. Amidst the backdrop of the “creative revolution” in advertising, they worked with the American Association of Advertising Agencies—along with CORE and the NAACP—to encourage agencies to change their hiring practices.
  • 1963 16 days prior to MLK’s “I have a dream” speech, Ad Age reported that Lever Bros. (now Unilever) demanded that its agencies “Desegregate Ads.” The article stated, in part: “Lever Bros., one of the country’s biggest advertisers, has asked all its agencies to come up with suggestions for more effective use of Negroes and members of other minority groups in the company’s advertising.”
  • 1963 – That same year, the New York Telephone Co. released an ad featuring a well-dressed Black man entering a telephone booth. This simple image broke barriers by being the first ad of its kind to run in general-circulation publications.
  • 1971 – Tom Burrell founded Burrell Communications Group following a successful start at Wade Advertising and Foote, Cone & Belding. In its first few years, the agency attracted clients such as McDonald’s and Coca-Cola, many of which remain clients today. Burrell Communications quickly grew to become the nation’s largest Black-owned marketing firm.
  • 1972 – The first black Santa Claus was featured in an advertisement for the Kodak Pocket Instamatic camera. Eastman Kodak Co. and J. Walter Thompson Co. executed the groundbreaking concept that was published in Ebony.
  • 1996 – McGhee Williams Osse becomes an equity partner and Co-CEO of Burrell Communications Group, a Black-owned agency that’s grown to become the leading multicultural advertising agency in the country.
  • 1990s Carol H. Williams wrote Secret deodorant’s tagline, “Strong Enough For a Man, But Made For a Woman,” as well as several Pillsbury campaigns, including the Doughboy’s iconic giggle. She was also the first Black female Creative Director and Vice President at Leo Burnett. Today, she owns the largest Black- and independently-owned agency in the US.
  • 2010s and 2020s Cheryl Overton is the Chief Experience Officer of Cheryl Overton Communications. She was recently inducted into the PR Week Hall of Femme and was chosen as “New Yorker of the Year,” which is the Ad Club’s advertising person of the year award. Her work champions themes of diversity and inclusion, including such notable campaigns as Procter & Gamble’s The Talk, Unilever’s Dove’s “Campaign for Real Beauty,” and more.

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