Culture Hack

Behind The Creative: A Celebration of Black Advertising Icons 

It’s never been lost on me the impact Black culture has had on the world and how it impacted the industry at large. 

Whether fighting for equity, revolutionizing the school system, contributing inventions, all our hard work as a community has been to elevate the lives of ourselves and others. 

So, as the advertising, tech, and publishing industries continue to make strides in a post-George Floyd and Breonna Taylor era, it’s essential to take note of what creating accurate equity looks like and where we should take time to acknowledge change makers within the space who were striving for equity before it was popular.

This Black History Month, Hero Collective would like to pay homage to and celebrate the Black founders who inspired cultural movements that caused a ripple effect in the advertising and publishing industry that still benefit many to this day… 

Carol H. Williams & The Carol H. Williams Agency 

There aren’t many in the world you can claim that they are the first; however, Carol H. Williams has had a long-standing career of being Leo Burnett’s first African American Female Creative Director and Vice President.

Williams took outdated advertising approaches and created an empathetic approach that allowed brands to authentically peer into audiences’ lives in culturally and ethnically sound ways.

Williams launched her advertising agency in 1986 and, since that time, has been credited with thought-provoking and iconic campaigns. Williams is the pen behind many of your favorite campaigns, such as Secret’s “Strong enough for a man, but made for a woman,” the Pillsbury Doughboy, Disney, and the list go on.

Ophelia Devore & The Grace DeMarco Agency 

Ophelia Devore inspired a cultural shift in the advertising and publishing industry that set up black models to thrive in spaces they previously weren’t welcomed.

Creator of the black is beautiful movement, Devore was one of the first black models in the 1930s; she exemplified power, pride, and beauty for black women. 

She founded the first Black modeling and acting agency in 1946. This was created as a resource for advertisers who wanted to connect with Black audiences and needed the talent to reflect their targeted communities. Divorce is credited with launching the careers of Diahann Carroll, Cicely Tyson, Richard Roundtree, Gail Fisher, and Helen Williams, creating a legacy that still lives on.

John Harold Johnson & Johnson Publishing 

For over 75 years, John Harold Johnson has enriched and empowered Black lives through its flagships Ebony and Jet by tapping into the unmet needs of black consumers and creating a lane for brands to authentically connect.

Johnson was inspired by Martin Luther King, who once stated that black consumers had “generated a sense of nobodiness”; they were ignored by the brands they often consumed. He established Johnson Publishing in 1942.

Johnson Publishing partnered with clients to create branded partnerships, adverts, and advertorials, many of which were featured in his magazines. As a result of his company’s hard work, brands could no longer ignore the experience in their ads or products. His lasting contribution heralded in a golden age of Black advertising that still continues today.

Tom Burrell & Burrell Communications 

Tom Burrell is the personification of ‘when you get there, do it differently!’

Like many Black creatives, Burrell had a unique introduction to advertising. Burrell started his career pitching ideas from the mailroom, where he wore a three-piece suit daily. Although Burrell wasn’t initially allowed to talk to clients directly, he still impacted the industry. He spent 10 years rising through the ranks of several ad agencies until he struck out on his own in 1971, starting Burrell McBean advertising.

He focused ads on consumer trades and interest in shopping behaviors, developing what we know today as targeted advertising. This approach leads to campaigns such as the Marlboro man, a celebration of Black cowboy culture. His legacy continues throughout his agency which still exists today as the Burrell communications group.

Vince & Marian Cullers & The Vince Cullers Agency 

Vince Cullers founded the first Black-owned and operated advertising agency in 1956 with his wife, Marian.

Frustrated with the lack of authentic black representation in American media, Cullers, a former Art Director for Ebony, was inspired by the civil rights movement and wanted to do more. Cullers’s mission was to open up the advertising market to the African-American audience and create strategies specifically for those populations without the stain of stereotypes.

The agency also serves as a creative hub in schools for young advertising students, who he later employed.

These efforts ushered in the era of targeted advertising, the dominant way ads are marketed today. In turn, brands realized that Black consumers did not have to conform to white concepts and advertising, but should be uniquely marketed to and celebrated. As Tom Burrell once said, targeted advertising began with Vince Cullers, and we should not forget that.

-W. Sky Downing