Crossing Over

Headshot of Adweek Staff

Perry Fair, a young associate creative director, remembers being a little starstruck as he sat across the table from one of TBWA\Chiat\Day’s top creative directors a few years ago. Fair had been recently hired by True Agency, TBWA\ C\D’s multicultural shop housed in the agency’s building in Playa del Rey, Calif.

Fair’s awe soon dissolved into shock as the creative director outlined an idea for a Nissan spot that Fair and his True colleagues could propose for an upcoming African American-targeted assignment. The idea involved wrapping an entire car—inside and out—in kente cloth, the colorful, traditional African fabric. The ad would show an African American family driving around in the car. “He told me, ‘It would be so cool. You people love that [cloth], right?'” Fair recalls. Fair, pictured above, informed the white creative director that such an ad would be insulting. The creative chief, whom Fair does not want to embarrass by naming, looked baffled by Fair’s reaction and was apparently unconvinced. (He later pitched the idea, again unsuccessfully, to others at True.) The agency chose another approach for the ad and marketing campaign, which ran in black-oriented media.

“I realized I was witnessing this blind spot in one of the brightest minds in one of this country’s top creative agencies,” says Fair, who cut his copywriting teeth working on Nike print ads at Wieden + Kennedy in Portland, Ore. The incident only reinforced his decision to leave the world of mass market agencies to work at a minority shop, he says.

Fair’s experience is echoed by other black and Hispanic advertising pros who got tired of hearing the predictable hip-hop or salsa music when they passed editing bays at their general market agencies. Like Fair, they bucked the conventional wisdom that their creative work would reach more people and thus have greater impact in major ad agencies. At minority agencies their work may reach a small market, they say, but it can have a bigger impact than anything they could do inside a mainstream agency. They believe that on the outside, they have more freedom and more opportunity. They can create ads and marketing that better reflects their own culture and taps America’s multicultural marketplace. That, in turn, will set higher creative standards and a sensitivity to minority issues for all advertising—including mass market. In addition, it’s only a matter of time before mainstream agencies look to minority agencies’ work for direction, as the U.S. population continues to shift and consumers’ tastes become more multicultural.

“I chose Hispanic advertising because the Hispanic market is hot and growing, compared to general market advertising, which is stable at best,” says Brazilian-born Laurence Klinger, chief creative director at Lápiz in Chicago. He worked on mass market ads for United Airlines and Procter & Gamble at Leo Burnett in Chicago in the 1980s before starting Burnett’s Hispanic division, which evolved into Lápiz. After leaving the agency to go overseas, he returned in 1999 and noticed how Hispanic culture was becoming a large part of American culture. He decided to focus on this sector and rejoined Lápiz.

From different generations and backgrounds—Klinger is 53, and Fair is 29—the two men took a path that many industry types consider career suicide. They knew that ads by minority agencies have a reputation for being second rate, marked by cultural stereotypes and poor production values. “Minority ads by minority agencies have a stigma,” Fair states. “Traditionally, African American ads take a clichéd, lowbrow view of the audience. I’m just waiting to see a spot with grandma playing basketball in the hood with hip-hop playing in the background,” he says. Raised and educated in Dallas, Fair says he is bored by hip-hop and basketball. He prefers kayaking and rock-climbing and is trying to organize an agency paintball team. “I’m an Eagle Scout kind of guy. I could work at Abercrombie & Fitch,” he quips. “These minority agencies know our weaknesses in the larger culture, and they prey on them to sell things,” says Fair bitterly. “It is using gospel music at church to peddle fried chicken. To me, it feels like a form of black-on-black racism.”

Good minority ads, on the other hand, are the opposite of blatant, say black and Hispanic creatives. Rather than using cultural cues that are obvious to outsiders, they show subtle understanding and an insider’s affinity with the audience’s background. “Minority insights are based on a lifetime of cultural absorption and several years of craft,” says True executive creative director Christopher Davis, formerly a creative director at MTV. “They are like a private joke that takes a lifetime to tell.”

Last June, Davis, 40, crafted a black-oriented spot for the Nissan Maxima that was so subtle that it ran in the general market, as well as on BET, the WB and UPN. The ad shows a black woman slipping as she walks in the snow and regaining her balance by leaning on a Maxima. The scene changes and she is zooming around in the car on a hot day with electronic music pulsing in the background. As she removes her hand from the car, she is back in reality, standing on the snowy street—only now she is sweating. General market consumers respond to the idea of escapism, while black viewers are more tuned in to the sense of empowerment, says Fair, who works closely with Davis. “African Americans see an independent woman on her own with a body that shows she works out. Yet her shirt is not unbuttoned, she has not compromised herself, and the music is not hip-hop,” explains Fair.

Cuban American Alberto Ferrer recognizes stereotyped patterns in the Hispanic market as well. Raised in Puerto Rico and educated in Boston, he worked on general market ads for Kodak, Citibank and the U.S. Marine Corps. at J. Walter Thompson in New York in the mid-1990s. Now 36 and director of online and direct marketing at Hispanic agency The Vidal Partnership in New York, he oversees all direct response creative work. “Often the minority shop thinks you need a grandma, someone dancing, and a large family to make it a Hispanic ad. Even worse are the sombreros and mariachi bands,” he says. “On the more nuanced level, we Hispanics share certain values. For instance, we tend to be inclusive. We usually grew up with Hispanics who are darker and lighter than us, so we don’t see as much color distinction as the general audience sees.” This variation, while sometimes confusing to non-Hispanic Americans, can be a source of amusement within the culture.

In a new Spanish-language spot for DirecTV’s Para Todos service (translation: For Everyone), Hispanic people of varying ages describe their favorite feature of the satellite company’s bilingual service. Ferrer oversaw creative work on the ad, which is a key part of the client’s direct response campaign. “Hispanic households are much more prone to have multiple generations with different tastes living in the same home,” says Ferrer. “So our campaign capitalizes on that by having people of different ages make a plea to the decision maker in their household, so they can get TV shows that please everyone in the house. In general, Hispanics are more focused on the group, the ‘clan,’ than on the individual person.” The tag is “TV for everyone.”

Unlike in an Anglo spot, the decision maker is understood to be the parental figure. “In Hispanic households there is more acknowledgment that the kids don’t run the household,” Ferrer notes. The national 60-second spot breaks this week on Spanish-language TV programs. It is tied to retail ads for the Para Todos service that show young Hispanics going to ridiculous lengths to convince their father or mother to subscribe.

Minority consumers like the feeling they get from an ad that they know was made by people who understand them, says Lápiz’s Klinger, who came to the U.S. from Brazil to attend a Connecticut prep school and has lived here since, with the exception of his stint in Europe. He points to one of the Hispanic ads his agency created for Coca-Cola’s “Real” campaign. Called “Silhouette,” the spot is built around a familiar expression in Latin America that compares a woman’s shape to the configuration of a Coke bottle, similar to the American expression that compares a woman’s body to an hourglass. In the ad, which ran in the U.S. on Spanish-language TV programming in the fall of 2003, a group of young men on a street corner drinking Coke ogle a beautiful woman who gets off the bus. As she walks away, they hold up their Coke bottles to compare them to her retreating shape.

The insights of an insider are useful, yet because these creatives have crossed between the mass and the minority markets it is not surprising that their ideas also cross over between the two worlds, such as True’s Maxima ad with the black female driver. In the most well-known of Lápiz’s Coke ads, the agency used international actress Salma Hayek and quirky Latin customs to get its message across. Called “Hollywood Restaurant,” it broke nationally on Spanish language TV shows in September 2003 and soon after was adapted for the U.S. general market. Hayek is seen in an upscale restaurant hanging out in the kitchen laughing, eating tacos and drinking Cokes with the chef and servers. In the meantime, her uptight Hollywood companions wait in the dining room. The ad speaks to Anglos and Hispanics because it “features a famous Latina who is true to her heritage,” says Klinger.

Ferrer agrees with Klinger that mainstream agency executives like themselves may become more interested in minority agencies as the minority creative stigma declines and general consumers’ tastes become more multicultural. They believe marketers will follow.

When it comes to Hispanic consumers, chief marketing officers for general market brands who had been asleep at the wheel are now waking up, says Ferrer. “The clients recognize that Hispanics are the fastest growing chunk of the marketplace and there are a lot of media channels to address them,” he says.

According to a study by the Association of Hispanic Advertising Agencies, from 2000 to 2003 growth in Hispanic advertising was four times greater than the general market. Hispanic print and television ads comprised more than $3 billion in media spending, slightly more than 5 percent of national corporate ad budgets in 2003, according to the study. At the same time, Hispanic consumers in the U.S. have changed in the 10 years since the implementation of NAFTA, according to Juan Faura, president of Cultura, a Hispanic agency in Dallas. “After NAFTA, Latin America became a mirror of the U.S. market and consumers there became exposed U.S. brands. When those consumers moved to the U.S., they were already accustomed to sophisticated marketing,” says Faura, formerly director of global strategy at Cheskin Research. Hispanic marketing in the U.S. needs to rise to their expectations by becoming more bicultural and bilingual, he says. While Hispanic marketing offers creatives a rapidly changing audience, nontraditional black agencies offer the promise of creative freedom. Fair says he came to True so he could be the “voice in the darkness.” “The African American audience is smarter than you think. They do more than what you see in ads. I wanted the freedom and latitude to do work that has never been done before,” he says.

He points to an atypical minority ad he crafted for the introduction of the Armada, Nissan’s full-size SUV. The ad shows the SUV in an illuminated glass box on a sidewalk near a highway. A black boy is looking up at it in wonderment. On the glass is a sign that says, “Break Glass in Case of Adventure.” The ad broke in black-oriented magazines in February. As yet another example of the blurred territory between minority and mainstream, last year the agency displayed an actual Armada in such a glass case in New York’s Times Square to reach audiences of all races.

Hilton Hotels, which hired True last year, is one of the clients that recognizes it has some catching up to do in regard to targeting minorities. The company works with True on print ads to persuade minorities to become Hilton franchisees. “We would like the ownership of our hotels to be more representative of our [multicultural] customer base,” says Kathy Shepard, Hilton’s vp of corporate communications. “We may be the leader among hotel chains in the number of African American and Hispanic owners, but that isn’t saying much. For instance, of our 2,300 hotels, 40 or less are owned by African Americans,” she says.

Davis, the creative chief at True who meditates and practices tai chi, looks forward to the changing landscape in minority ads. He sums up the frustrations of those who have crossed over from general market to minority agencies. “America is the world’s largest sponge. [U.S. culture] absorbs what is foreign and offers it up in a new context,” he says. “You see it in rock ‘n’ roll, in fashion and in your iPod. Where you don’t see it is in the advertising industry.”

Crossover creatives are betting their careers that the status quo is changing and popular culture will force advertising and marketing creative to become less “mainstream” and more multicultural. It may seem like a long shot to many, but for some, the future looks brighter in minority shops than in the general market.