Black Americans who propelled the advertising industry forward

Sunday night, John Legend and Common accepted an Academy Award for their song “Glory”. Their win and musical performance made us all reflect on the past, contemplate the present, and hope for the future equality of blacks and all minorities in America.

Mass communication industries, such as advertising, public relations, graphic design, television, media, etc., have not been exempt from discriminatory actions. In fact, most brands ignored black consumers and excluded black professionals until the end of the 20th century. It wasn’t until the early 1950’s that the first black man was hired to work at a Madison Avenue ad agency.

To honor their journey of hardship and turmoil and to celebrate their accomplishments and plight to open the mass communication field up to black consumers and future professionals, we want to highlight five African Americans who propelled the advertising industry forward and paved the way for future generations of black and minority advertising professionals.

Clarence Holte (1909-1993)

From Norfolk Virgina, Holte began his advertising career at Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborn (BBDO) as an ethnic marketing specialist. His work included a liaison to black newspapers and radio. He was the first black advertising professional on Madison Avenue and was also one of the first to rise to an executive level position in a general-market ad agency.  He is known for his work with Old Taylor Bourbon in their “Ingenious Americans” campaign, which highlighted the cultural and technological contributions by blacks. He left BBDO after 20 years to start Nubian Press, a publishing company that closed a year before his death.

ingenious americans ad

He was awarded an honorary doctorate degree from Lincoln University and to honor his achievements in publishing the Clarence L. Holte Literary Prize (an award that recognizes work dealing with cultural heritage of black Americans). BBDO sponsors AAAA’s Clarence LeRoy Holte Multicultural Advertising Intern Program award. He is also known for his extensive collection of books that cover the history and culture of Africans and people of African descent in the America’s and Europe.

[Holte pictured on left]

Holte Book

Thomas J. Burrell (1939 – Present)

Chicagoan Thomas Burrell was the first African American to work at a Chicago ad agency. He climbed his way up from mailroom clerk to copywriter and eventually served as a copy supervisor at Foote Cone & Belding and creative supervisor for Needham Harper & Steers before starting his own company in 1971. He is founder and chairman of Burrell Communications group, one of the first and leading African-American owned agencies. The agency would eventually claim clients such as Proctor & Gamble, Nabisco, Verizon, and Maxwell House Coffee.

Of his contributions to the industry, the most propelling one was the theory of  “positive realism”— targeted ad campaigns that reflect relevant, authentic portrayals of African Americans using client products. This work helped change the industry’s approach to marketing, shifting it from mass marketing to target marketing. In 2010, he published a book called Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth Black Inferiority. The book explores the centuries of marketing and media distortions that placed African Americans as an inferior race and then connects it to the attitudes blacks have about themselves today as individuals and a group.

Ndigo Cover Tom Burrell 012710

His accomplishments have prompted recognition from groups such as Advertising Age, who named him on lists such as the “50 Who Made a Difference” and one of the “Top 100 Advertising People” in the industry. He has also received the Albert Lasker “Advertising Person of the Year”(85-86), and been given the Missouri Honor Medal from the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism. He was inducted into the Advertising Hall of Fame in 2004.

John H. Johnson (1918 – 2005)

With his driven pursuance in both communication and community, John H. Johnson has proven that the accreditations of his merit prove well deserved.

In 1942, Johnson founded Johnson Publishing with a mere $500 loan and created the publication Negro Digest. Reaching circulation of 50,000 in only 6 months the project was deemed a success and Johnson started looking for ways to continue his growth. For his next project, Johnson created Ebony, a magazine designed to bring hope and positive images to African Americans, as well as, discuss and deal with the political and social issues facing blacks in America. It was through these publications that Johnson advanced our field; providing proof to brands that African Americans were a distinct and viable market and that messages could reach blacks through publications that served their cultural interests. Ebony has since gone on to become Johnson’s flagship publication and is the nation’s number one African-American focused magazine with a monthly readership of 10 million.


Throughout the development of his career, Johnson also bought three radio stations, established a cosmetics line, and commenced a book publishing company and a television production company.

In addition to Johnson Publishing acting as the number one African-American publishing company in the world, Johnson is the recipient of numerous awards. In 1966, he won the NAACPS’ coveted Spingarn Medal; In 1972,  he was also named as publisher of the year by the major magazine publishers in the United States; In 1982, he  became the first African American to be named one of the 400 richest people in America by Forbes magazine; and in 1996, President Bill Clinton awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the nation. For the culmination of his efforts in advertising, Johnson became inducted into the Advertising Hall of Fame in 2002.

Billy Davis (1932 – 2004)

When it comes to music, Detroit native, Billy Davis was a man of many talents, wearing the hat as performer, composer, arranger, producer, and impresario. Beginning his career in the 1950s, Davis formed the Four Tops, one of the most popular groups of rock-n-roll’s Golden Era. After acting as in-house producer and creative guiding hand at Chess Records in Chicago, Davis was recruited by the McCann Erickson advertising agency where he joined their New York music division in 1968.

davis3As one of the first top executives with a background in pop music, Davis is credited with popularizing “song-form” advertising. His work remains some of the most popular advertisements in existence. His notable work includes songs for Coca-Cola such as “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing”, “It’s the Real Thing”, and “Have a Coke and a Smile”. Other associated works also include “Miller Time” for Miller Brewing, “Soup Is Good Food” for Campbell’s, and “The Sound of Sony” for Sony.

Staying with McCann Erickson for 19 years, Davis eventually worked his way up to Senior Vice President of the company where over the years, his song form campaigns won every award the industry offered. In 2007, Davis became inducted into the Advertising Hall of Fame.

Frank L. Mingo (1939-1989) 

Renowned for his contributions in marketing segmentation via his involvement in national politics, media and race relations Frank Mingo has made strides in both the field of advertising and the African-American community.

Before founding his own company, Mingo began his advertising career at J. Walter Thompson Co. where he became the agency’s first African-American account executive. Here Mingo handled clients such as Quaker Oats, Oscar Meyer, and Sears Roebuck & Co. He then served as vice president and management supervisor at McCann-Erickson where he acted as the driving force behind the introduction and launch of one of America’s most popular brands, Lite Beer from Miller Brewing. After his mounting successes at other agencies, Mingo founded his own company, Mingo-Jones Advertising Inc. Starting with a staff of just four in 1977, Mingo grew the firm to one of the nation’s largest black owned and minority oriented advertising agencies before it’s closure in 2004. Mingo also helped found Muse Cordero Chen Inc., the nation’s only multi-ethnic ad agency targeting consumers of African-American, Asian and Hispanic descent.

[KFC creative created by Mingo-Jones to target black americans. It was eventually adopted for the national campaign.]

In the community, Mingo contributed to the the National Urban League, the NAACP, the American Association of Advertising Agencies, and Western States Advertising Agency, where his involvement in each helped develop programs to attract and sustain more minorities in the advertising business. Among his other achievements, Mingo has won industry awards such as the H. K. McCann Award and the Robert E. Healy Award, and in 1996, became inducted to the Advertising Hall of Fame.

While these men parted the sea and left waves of influence, the advertising industry still has many strides to make. In 2000 the US Census found out of half a million workers in advertising only 6% were African-American. A more recent study (2009, Madison Avenue Project) by the NAACP found that black college graduates in the industry earned only 80% as much as equally-qualified white college grads. Today’s Bureau of Labor Statistics cites that of those who claim to be in advertising, public relations, and related services only 6.6% of them are black. Doing the math, that means in fourteen years the percentage of blacks in advertising has increased by a sixth of a point.

These statistics show a blatant need for the industry to exert more effort in diversifying its professionals. We all need to educate ourselves about this issue so we can work to change the industry standards and its obviously unwelcoming image. To get a full understanding of this issue and the walls these five professionals faced, we recommend reading Madison Avenue and the Color Line by Jason Chambers. This book is the first to focus on black advertising professionals, rather than the portrayal of black in advertisements.

– Caroline Robinson & Savannah Valade


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