You Don’t Belong Here: My First Day as an African American Copywriter.
I knew I wanted to be in advertising since the sixth grade. On TV’s Bewitched, it wasn’t Samantha’s nose twitch that cast a spell on me. It was her husband’s cool job writing commercials.
Back in the late 80's, I landed my first summer internship at an ad agency. It was the summer I also started drinking — Pepto Bismol straight from the bottle. I was sure this job was going to give me an ulcer by summer’s end. It felt like I could never do anything right and that was on purpose. I’ll get to that later.
My MLK-Meets-Ogilvy Moment
On my first day, the creative director (we’ll call him “Ron”) introduced me around the office. It was a whirlwind of handshakes and hearing too many names to remember. They were the actual suit-wearing-chain-smoking white guys straight out of Mad Men. When we get to Ron’s office, we have a talk I’ll never forget.
“Most of the people you just met don’t believe Blacks can write general market advertising,” I remember him saying. “You’re here to prove them wrong.”
I think my jaw dropped. Maybe he was pushing for diversity and inclusion, but I wasn't prepared to hear it put that way. When it sank in, I thought, “Great. I can’t just be the intern. I have to be a cross between Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and David Ogilvy.”
It was now my job to lead people of color to the “promise land” of advertising. I felt if I screwed this up, it would be harder for the next person like me to walk through those doors.
Ron handpicked me, even though I didn’t have a real portfolio. Back then, my book was composed of articles from the school newspaper and my final project from a screenwriting class — a TV script for The Cosby Show.
Ron thought I had a way with dialogue, but he made me think I was clueless as a copywriter.
My headlines were too “punny” (and they were)…
I wrote radio that made him “want to change the station…”
And if he found a misspelling? Let’s say, it wasn’t pretty…
It's not just a car, it's my tagline
After my daily verbal beatdowns, I’d sulk away and drown my stomach pains in Pepto. I wanted to quit, but I couldn’t. I took my role seriously as “Dr. Martin Luther Ogilvy, Jr.” Fortunately, the only female copywriter (we’ll call “Jane”) took pity on me and helped me with my work.
During the last week of my internship, another creative director asked me to work on the Mr. Goodwrench campaign. The agency was on the verge of losing the account, so they had nothing to lose by letting me take a stab at it.
I came up with the tag line, “It’s not just your car, it’s your freedom.” I wrote a script about a young man leaving home in search of adventure. Mr. Goodwrench gets his car ready for the big journey, before saying goodbye to dad. A few heads nod around the room. Jane said I put the other writers to shame. Ron wasn’t there for the pitch, but when I shared it with him, he said my scripts were “predictable.”
That’s when I snapped. There was only a week left to my internship, so I didn’t care if I got fired. Normally, I’d just take his abuse and question my career/life choices. This time, I defended my work and showed him I wasn’t “punny.” I was funny and I was on strategy.
Ron smiled. Then he thanked me for explaining it so clearly.
You didn't break me
On my last day, Ron called me into his office. Wearing that same smile, he said he was proud of me. He spent that whole summer trying to “break me,” and was proud I didn’t quit.
He said he loved my creativity and thinking, but being creative wasn’t enough to survive in this business. “You need a tough skin,” he said. “This is a business where you better get used to hearing ‘no,’ instead of ‘yes.’ And a lot of people won’t be pleasant about it.” He’s right, of course. What creative hasn’t worked late nights and weekends on the “perfect campaign,” only to watch a client tear it apart?
His “tough love” didn’t give me a tough skin, it a gave me a suit of armor. I’ve won more awards than I have shelf space, while dealing with entitled clients. For example, there was a client who wanted me to re-edit spots targeting African Americans by using with her favorite (but completely inappropriate) rap music. I refused and shut down the studio that day. She tried to get me fired, but ended up in sensitivity training. And no, it didn’t help. She’s a major marketing exec today and my work helped get her there.
As for general market advertising, I’ve been the voice of everything from NASCAR to the Country Music Awards.
So what happened with Mr. Goodwrench?
Fast forward a few months. My internship ends and Jane calls to tell me to watch a particular show and the commercial break. (Remember, these are the 80’s and we couldn’t pull up commercials on Google or YouTube.)
Next, I see this commercial about this kid leaving home. It ends with this song: “It’s not just a car, it’s your freedom.” Funny, I had no clue why I didn’t give this kid a destination, like college or his first job. I think it was one of Ron’s criticisms. It was his response that everyone liked: “I’ll let you know when I get there.” I guess, it gave it that “freedom” vibe.
Jane calls back and asks, “Correct me if I’m wrong, wasn’t that your spot?” When I confirmed, she promised to get a copy to me. Turns out, that campaign kept the account from leaving.
Sure, I was mad, but when you create something for any agency, the work belongs to them and the client. Still, it would’ve been validating to get some credit. On that day, I also realized that I proved them wrong. I was good enough. And thanks to Google and YouTube, I even found a copy of that spot and the start of my copywriting career:
Let's get to the promise land together
Right now, brands worldwide are whipping up the diversity statements. I don't have a statement, except that I've always worked toward diversity and inclusion in this business. My past experiences have shaped what I want for the ad industry's future.
I’ve mentored countless students throughout my career, because the ad industry hasn’t changed much since I was an intern. Still, I look forward to reaching a new group of students this summer. Today’s conversations of cultural diversitymake it more important than ever.
My beginning wasn’t pretty. I first learned about the barriers directly from people who admitted being the gatekeepers, so I make it my responsibility to help young creatives get to the “promise land,” knowing they are good enough.