Black History Month 2023 served up an opportunity for dozens of notable Black advertising creatives and entrepreneurs to look to the future, as Chicago house music pioneer Vince Lawrence’s music and sound studio, Slang Music Group, and his cultural branding agency, Agents of Slang hosted a lunch to salute their talent, ingenuity, and tenacity.
Lawrence applauded his guests for prevailing in an industry that consistently breaks its promise of diversity, equity, and inclusion.
“I wanted to curate something that was genuine, that was honest, where we could celebrate each other,” Lawrence reflected. “Culture is more than color. They are proven thought leaders and sh*t starters in our town. In advertising, they live on the front lines as Black people redefining stereotypes.”
Lawrence predicts that many big brands may land in the history bin because they fail to leverage the cultural insights and creativity of this venerable advertising talent pool.
“Brands just haven’t lost enough money yet,” mused Deborah Gray Young, a consultant and former media director of one the nation’s leading Black agencies, adding that most brands and agencies don’t know Black culture intimately enough to create work that resonates with Black audiences. “The biggest problem that brands and agencies have is that they think everybody is the same. There are numerous brands that ignore the cultural nuances of Black consumers and subsequently don’t maximize the business and market share opportunity.”
An Ad Age analysis also concludes that Black creatives are routinely overlooked, giving 2023 Super Bowl ads a failing grade for having only one spot created by a Black director. The NFL spot, We See You, ironically spotlights disadvantaged communities. Elsewhere, the headline of a February 27 Adweek article screams, “Brands Made Countless Diversity Promises in 2020. Very Few Have Delivered on Them.” It cites a recent poll by Hue, an organization that advocates for American employers to recruit more leaders of color, revealing that inequities persist in these workplaces.
“During Black History Month, you hear a lot about the ‘first black person’ to do one thing or another,” observed Agents of Slang Chief Creative Officer James Marcus. “Often, it’s the first Black person who was allowed to do it. Behind the scenes, many of the real changes, the real firsts accomplished by black men and women, were lost to a whitewashed history. Some of the Black creatives in that room know how it felt to start something, to invent, and then watch other people get the credit.”
It’s not just the credit that eludes Black creative agencies, it’s also the cash, according to executive producer Qadree Holmes, founder of Quriosity Productions. His agency, located in Chicago and Los Angeles, has a sizable roster of Black directors, editors, and photographers. However, despite their talent, years of experience, and the superlative quality of their reels, he says that his agency, like others, typically is not paid the same rate as their white counterparts.
“It was shared with me that for some clients, their business model is to reach out to minority businesses because they expect us to accept a lower rate than non-minority companies. It’s a double standard in the industry,” Holmes said.
That business practice appears in every volume of Black history, but it has not deterred those determined to succeed. Flamboyant rock and roll artist Little Richard, for example, ideally personifies the struggles of so many Black creatives.
Impoverished, Richard sold his first hit song, Tutti Frutti, to a white record label owner for $50. He was paid royalties of a half-cent for each record sold—10 percent of white artists’ royalties. Tutti Frutti sold more than 3 million copies. Despite losing a lawsuit for breaching his exploitative contract and being denied royalties for the rest of his career, Richard reportedly left a $40 million estate. He was the perfect patron saint for this Black History Month event.
Lawrence’s team emblazoned Richard’s face on invitations and signage at the venue, avec River North, 141 W Erie Street in Chicago. Their lunch guests included nationally known creatives such as celebrity chef and “Professional Party Starter” Chef Jamika Pessoa, whose recipes were featured at avec for this special occasion; Steve Conner and Sheila Conner of Fluid Content and the HEPH Foundation; Sheldon Candis and Qadree Holmes of Quriosity Productions; Marc Glanville of Edelman; Dani Jackson-Smith from The Cre8tors; Twyler Jenkins of Strategic Events Solutions; Phil Lee and Darryl Manuel of Spin Artist; Larvetta Lofton of The L3 Agency; Jordan Lusane of Fluent 360; Vin Tran and Rebecca Williams of the Cashmere Agency; and Aubrey Walker of OKRP and Putney.
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