It’s All About The Music

I suspect the 11 agencies that signed agreements with the Human Rights Commission committing them to minority hiring guidelines in the next three years came back to work last week wondering, “Now what?” Failure to comply is punishable by fines, and just to make sure this action remains top of mind, the Rev. Jesse Jackson is planning more multicity hearings in the coming months. Happy Kwanzaa to all.

And while I think we probably asked for it—given the dearth of diversity within our ranks—this action alone is not going to work without some sincere soul searching on our collective parts. All of us. And it certainly did not have to come to this. At least not the way I saw it, coming up in this business.

Straight out of Missouri University’s School of Journalism, I sign on with D’Arcy St. Louis as a wide-eyed young account guy. This was a wonderful agency with major businesses, including Ralston-Purina, Southwestern Bell, Ozark Airlines, Brown Shoe and most of the Anheuser-Busch accounts. I land in the beer business a year later, and my first priority is to get next to the creatives. They’d already produced a ground-breaking, general market, Clio-winning TV spot called “Five Kings,” featuring four black card players plus the King of Beers. Soon enough the creative group would include three blacks (two writers, one art director) and a black producer. And three young (white) women (two writers and an art director)—all of whom could hold their own and always did. They were all there because they were good, that’s all. There they were, no big deal. We also had a middle-aged, larger-than-life, take-no-prisoners woman running Ozark Airlines, one of our biggest accounts. There she was, too; no big deal either. Later on I hired the first woman ever to run an Anheuser-Busch account, Natural Light Beer. She was the best person for the job. Period.

It can be argued that we first established major brand market segmentation after that, slicing up Budweiser’s vast beer market into targets under the umbrella of “This Bud’s for you.” We teamed close with these young black creatives to produce authentic, honest programs aimed at this diverse market: the “Great kings of Africa” print campaign for Ebony and Jet magazines, commissioning talented black artists to interpret historic black leaders in original works, donating millions of reprints to schools across America; killer, all-music radio spots by famous but unidentified black musicians, including BB King, Rick James, the Temptations, Herbie Hancock, Johnny “Guitar” Watson, Frankie Beverly, et al. (we kept it real, and the audience knew …); we hired Lou Rawls as our national spokesperson, and then brought him to the United Negro College Fund and produced fund-raising television specials that raised millions upon millions of dollars for needy students over the next 25 years. We were also producing mainstream “This Bud’s for You” TV spots saluting blacks as working heroes (fireman, record producer, etc.) All of this helped spawn A-B’s extremely successful “Superfest” summer concert series, presenting major black artists in sold-out stadium venues across the country for several years running.

These things seemed perfectly natural to us, following the birth of the civil and women’s rights movements the previous decade. Besides, I grew up with rhythm and blues music, the kind that crawled up out of the Mississippi Delta, fermented in Memphis and stewed in St. Louis before landing in Chicago. And I played in electric R&B bands. BB King, James Brown, Muddy Waters were our heroes (still are); we played their music, and we played it in bands with black musicians, brothers, joined by the music—an early incubation in what would be called “integration.” We didn’t see it as bold social commentary; we were just playing the real shit, together, just like the dudes down at Stax Records in Memphis and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band up in Chicago. It was all about the music. Still is.

Our marketing and advertising efforts—fully embraced, encouraged and funded by Anheuser-Busch—were so effective that when Jesse Jackson came to St. Louis in 1982 on behalf of his Operation Push to declare “Bud’s a dud,” and call for a national black boycott against Anheuser-Busch products, black beer drinkers simply would not follow him. They knew. Budweiser was for real. So real that A-B did not hire a “black agency” until years later. Didn’t need to. In fact, it wasn’t until sometime after this that specialized black and Hispanic agencies began to emerge, creating new opportunities for talented minority agency types, including management, to seek careers in the business. It was a time when we all assumed and embraced the notion that it took their own to communicate with these special segments. The marketplace got segmented, and the advertising industry responded with specialized, independent, minority agencies.

The Hispanic market, already growing in the mid-’70s, was still dominated by first-generation immigrants, most of whom spoke only Spanish. And we didn’t. So we helped A-B hire their first Hispanic ad agency, and then worked with them to adapt our general market campaign to this segment. Hispanics, like blacks, wanted to be included in the mainstream—but also wanted to retain their own distinctiveness and language. This was seen then as a natural thing, a good thing.

Today, many of these same black and Hispanic agencies are embracing “diversity” themselves—at least as it pertains to minorities. And now I’m wondering if this protracted agency independence that emerged in response to market segmentation isn’t actually contributing to the problem the HRC has been challenged to address. Talented as they are, aren’t they providing a self-perpetuating haven for minorities? I also think it’s fair to pose the following question to Jackson and company: “Which way do you want it?”

Back then we planned and created this advertising together. We did the same thing with women: first-ever-women-as-hero beer spots featuring a “Hotdogger” skier and later, an all-female “This Bud’s for you” montage. And it was all about the advertising. All we ever thought was, this is cool. We knew it was good business. All this rainbow magic working together. We were breaking rules. We jammed together. We made it work.

(This was way before anybody would consider the validity of marketing to gays, way before “Don’t ask. Don’t tell.” In fact, back then it was “Don’t even think about it.” But we did get one inquiry from The Advocate, now the longest-running gay publication anywhere, offering to run a particular Budweiser print ad at no cost. It pictured a locker room full of bare-chested, after-shower athletes, and one of them had discovered a magic beer tap in his locker. We thought it was funny enough to run in Rolling Stone. They thought it was buff enough to run in The Advocate).

It was all about the advertising. And the results it produced.

And none of it came from the top down. Or from outside pressure. None of it was legislated, demanded, demonstrated for, threatened or otherwise mandated. Wasn’t necessary. Now Jackson is making well-intentioned demands on our business. He and the Rev. Al Sharpton are concerned about “advertising industry exclusion policies” and are calling for all kinds of human rights actions and multi-city hearings.

First of all, there simply ain’t no “exclusion policies.” They do not exist, literally or prejudicially. Not simply for equal-opportunity reasons. Because it would be stupid. It would ignore the opportunity for agencies to make money, for their clients and for themselves, something all the grumpy old white men that run these agencies fully understand.

We’re at the proverbial tipping point of the pop culture melting pot. The growth of the minority population is real and inevitable, and along with it, genuine, positive influence and cultural diversity. Today the influence of minority and ethnic culture on our entire, multi-textured universe is obvious and everywhere and wonderful. So, simply, we must have diverse, minority influence on our collective marketing efforts. This ain’t altruistic, or driven by a justifiable embrace of equal rights or even simply doing the right thing—all of which are and should be the universal mandates. This is simply good business, and how’s anybody going to argue with that?

Personally, I have no doubt the general agency rank and file, most of whom are a hell of lot younger than me, want to (and in many cases, already do) embrace minorities on their teams. They want help getting out on the edge of pop culture cool to sell their clients’ stuff to an advertising world that’s gone way, way young. Why else would they be bustin’ your moves, jammin’ your music, talkin’ your talk and wearing your clothes? And despite the fact that I suspect many agency leaders are genuinely out of touch with this stuff, all any of them want is talented people producing effective marketing and communications solutions for their clients. And all any damned client wants is to absolutely sell as much of their shit to as many people as possible, gender/race/sexual preference/beliefs/height or weight be damned.

So here’s what I’m sayin’ to our new rainbow bureaucracy:

Less talk, more walk.

Fewer mandates, more candidates.

Less protests, more prospects.

Interviews, not interventions.

Communications, not committees.

Not hearings—hirings.

Make it all about the advertising.

And here’s my question for anybody out there feeling excluded: Do you want in? Because if you do, come on. Bring you talent and your desire. You’ll absolutely get a look. You’ll get a shot in this crazy business to prove yourself capable—just like the rest of us schmucks. Truth is you have the advantage. We all look alike and sound alike. You’re out there, you have something unique to offer. And you get it. So, come on! You don’t need no stinking mandate. Come on. No way it takes three years, either. It’s way past time, right now.

It’s all about the advertising. You’ll see.