creative profile: Native Son

G+G mixes Indian mores with Western business savvy
On a recent flight from Chicago to New York, Michael Gray, founder of G+G Advertising in Albuquerque, N.M., found himself seated beside Bob Berenson, president of Grey Advertising USA. Gray was speechless: In 1998, Grey had sued Gray & Gray Advertising, forcing it to change its name to G+G.
The suit followed the hoopla over G+G’s win of the $6 million subcontract for the Census 2000 campaign, and Gray was initially miffed. But he surrendered without a fight, amazed that the global agency took such an interest in his tiny shop.
During the in-flight conversation, Gray, a Blackfoot-Chippewa-Cree whose Indian name is Eagle Speaking, learned that Berenson owned a Pendleton blanket–bought from the American Indian College Fund–the same design that hangs in G+G’s conference room. The best part? Gray designed the blanket. “Every time he looks at that blanket, muses Gray, “he won’t be able to forget us.”
Nor will anyone who follows the regional ad landscape. G+G is quietly showing up on the industry’s radar.
Gray says annual billings “just touch the $10 million mark,” but by any creative yardstick, G+G is one of the hot shops in New Mexico. It’s the only full-service ad agency owned and run by American Indians, and it is landing bigger assignments, such as anti-tobacco ads for Philip Morris, a collaboration with Y&R that breaks this summer.
At G+G’s 5,000-square-foot office on Central Avenue, the Pendleton blanket hangs on the wall above a wooden conference-room table. Gray chose its circular shape to put everyone on equal footing when creative juices flow.
One of the agency’s coups is the Census 2000 account. Since the 32-year-old Gray landed the Census 2000 subcontract from Young & Rubicam, he has promised to deliver “more culturally sensitive messages without making any assumptions” about the tribal nations in the U.S.
“Our messages cannot be a one-size-fits-all when there are some 500 federally recognized tribes,” explains Gray. “The Census campaign originates from the Department of Commerce,” he adds. “It wouldn’t work if the government was talking. It had to be Indians talking to Indians.”
Y&R evp Terry Dukes says the agency learned of G+G in spring 1997, when it was looking for an agency to create the American Indian/Alaska Native messages. They found G+G, comprised of 10 staffers and five part-time workers, through the Bureau of Indian Affairs. “Michael is open-minded, and he’s eager to grow. We had a few bumps, but we’d hire him again in a heartbeat,” says Dukes.
“When Michael would stand on the knowledge of his culture [as the rationale for a message or graphic] as proof that something would work, we weren’t used to that. We have clients spending great gobs of money who push and say ‘prove it.’ ” Today, both agree Gray makes every effort to prove his point when he says something will work.
But did his work play with American Indians?
Laura Harris, evp of Americans for Indian Opportunity in Santa Ana Pueblo, (in N.M.), says Gray’s Census work “is the first I’ve seen in decades that strikes so close to the heart of the Indian people. He captured who we are better than anyone else.” The Census 2000 campaign, a three-part effort that debuted in November 1999, ran a second wave of print, radio and TV spots in January reminding American Indians how their ancestors fought for their lands. The third phase of the Census 2000 campaign breaks this month.
A current G+G partnership, an alliance with Ogilvy & Mather on behalf of the federal Office of National Drug Control Policy, is also aimed at young American Indians. A radio and print campaign breaks in about 25 markets this month. Gray says the campaign is a “takeoff on the ‘This is your brain on drugs’ promotion.”
Anti-drug print ads are targeted at kids and parents. Copy geared to adults states, “For American Indian parents, now is a good time to pass down the tradition and communicate to our youth that drugs are not a part of our Native cultures.” Gray, whose staff includes Indians and non-Indians, feels strongly about this and other accounts.
“Ideally, I’d like to work with more non-Indian clients,” says Gray. “We’re culturally sensitive and can offer new perspectives on mainstream messages.”
“G+G has a fresh voice and huge potential because of the blending of Native American culture with Western culture,” adds director Joe Pytka, whose credentials include spots for HBO and Pepsi.
It’s a sentiment Gray endorses. Several non-Indian clients also grace the agency’s roster, including local work for clients such as Cigna’s Lovelace Health Care Systems in Albuquerque and the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra.
What began eight years ago as a freelance design effort evolved into a full-fledged ad agency in 1995. Gray got help from his brother, Gerald Jr., and their father, Gerald Sr. Gray’s dad, a retired tribal boarding school superintendent, provided business expertise, while his brother, a former teacher, handles new business planning, media buys and research.
The latter was critical in the Census 2000 campaign. “The ‘I, me’ words are not used in the Indian culture to the degree they are among non-Indians,” says Gray. Research showed leaders like Sitting Bull, Geronimo and Chief Joseph were “almost mythic in stature,” which is why a present-day descendant of Geronimo’s was used in a Census 2000 print ad.
Gray credits David Kennedy with pushing him into the ad business. Gray first encountered Kennedy when the now-retired art director of Wieden & Kennedy was doing pro bono work for the American Indian College Fund. Gray worked for Wieden on behalf of the AICF.
Kennedy calls Gray “a great designer, very bright and passionate about his work and his people. We were simpatico from the beginning.” “David’s our silent rabbit in the hat,” smiles Gray. “He convinced me G+G could stand on its own merits.”
Kennedy’s influence and G+G’s work convinced another industry giant, Kennedy’s Nike colleague Pytka, to direct the TV spots for G+G’s portion of the Census campaign. Gray admits he had little broadcast experience prior to the campaign and says he “was blown away” when Pytka agreed to direct.
Pytka insisted a special tipi from the Blackfoot reservation be brought in for one shoot, along with two medicine men who oversaw its use. Later, Kennedy and Pytka were presented with golden eagle feathers in recognition of their devotion to accuracy.
During a recent G+G focus group test of American Indian parents, one woman remarked that her kids “consumed so much media” she wished there were more “Indians talking to Indians in the media like in that ad for the Census.” Eagle Speaking grinned in the dark behind the one-way glass. Someone was listening.