Thursday, October 29, 2009
7205: Blacklisted Is Not Beautiful.
By Harry Webber at MadisonAveNew…
ISSUE 269: Wednesday, October 28, 2009
I had really fucked up this time. I think the first time I realized it was when the plane began its descent into the San Juan TCA and more than a few Puerto Rican ladies actually dropped to the cabin floor on their hands and knees and kissed off a hasty prayer. I had convinced the President of Compton Advertising, Milt Gossett, to give me a job in their San Juan affiliate to get me out of hot water with the head of Young & Rubicam, Edward L. Bond. It was Mr. Bond who had assured me one night while I was working on yet another all-nighter, “Young man, consider your advertising career to now be null and void,” and then walked away without ever looking back. Not my job, but my entire advertising career. If there was ever a Madison Avenue "black list," the name Harry Webber was now indelibly inscribed in blood.
Ed Bond was pissed. The day after our cryptic encounter, he had fired off a staff memo stating that henceforth and forever no employee would be allowed to talk to the press without the express permission of Mark Stroock, head of Corporate Affairs. My offense? I had been the first person to go public about Madison Avenue’s dirty little secret. In matters of equal opportunity for all, the advertising industry had seceded from the Union. Madison Avenue did not consider itself part of America when it came to liberty and justice for all. Only whites need apply.
Since I was only the second or third black person to be hired by a Madison Avenue advertising agency, I was certainly the last person anybody would expect to speak out. But this was 1969 and blacks were being beaten, bitten and bloodied in the streets of America. So when civil rights advocate and attorney Flo Henderson showed up with picket signs to protest a Clio Award for the Wells, Rich, Green campaign, “This is What Love is Like” for Love cosmetics, it drew a crowd. And since the Clios were being held at the New York Hilton across the street from the corporate offices of the CBS and ABC Television Networks, the press showed up. And they were greeted by posters that said “This is what Wells, Rich, Greene is Like,” showing a picture of a black uniformed man servant (one of six) hired by the agency to wait on the all-white staff of the prestigious advertising agency owned by the flamboyant Mary Wells Lawrence. At issue was the fact that WRG put them down as black professionals in their government mandated headcount. Oops.
Mrs. Wells-Lawrence was the wife of Braniff Airlines Chairman Harding Lawrence and a legitimate member of the Paris, New York and Dallas jet set. She lived in a series of amazing residences around the world including a castle in the South of France and an amazing hidden and totally soundproof “villa” behind the Braniff ticket counter at the Dallas airport. Black servants were a way of life for Mary Wells Lawrence. But not for the black folks who were being routinely turned away from the advertising industry. Those folk were offended that such behavior was being not just accepted, but being awarded by the advertising industry.
Just one month prior to this demonstration, I had been voted in as the new President of the Group for Advertising Progress (GAP), an advocacy group for promoting equal opportunity for minorities within the advertising industry. The government was demanding that advertising end its apartheid and several agencies with large government contracts had started training programs to raise their minority headcount. So as fate would have it, I was pointed out, while waiting to get in to the awards show, to the chairman of the Clios. The chairman swept me out of the line with a nervous request to address the assembled black tie, all-white assembly of the most powerful people in advertising. He figured I would be a better choice than the fiery Flo Kennedy who was already blasting Madison Avenue on the 6 o’clock News and was demanding to be allowed to address the attendees. So, against my better judgment I got up and spoke.
I spoke of the Booth Commission’s findings about employment practices and bias in the advertising industry. I mentioned that what was going on outside their awards show was much like what had gone on for Italian art directors and Jewish copywriters a decade earlier. That’s when the boos started, from the Italian art directors and Jewish copywriters who were highly offended that I would lump them in with Flo’s chanting masses that were now stopping rush hour traffic on Avenue of the Americas.
I went on but nobody heard. Nobody but the guy from Advertising Age. He got down every word. Along with my name and my agency affiliation. The whole sordid affair was published on page two the next day. Of course what I didn’t know was that along with the top brass of the ad business, the top brass bed of their clients’ businesses were also in attendance. And when they got wind of what was happening, they beat a hasty retreat for the rear door. The head marketing guy from Coke or Pepsi was not about to photographed by the press wading through a picket line of angry black folk from Bedford Stuy.
Later I was told that was exactly what happened at the Y&R table that night. Y&R had made itself famous by entreating New Yorkers to “Give Jobs, Give Money, Give a Damn,” for the Urban Coalition, a group of the Fortune 100 who were headquartered in New York City. This was a PR disaster in the making for the agency.
So that’s what got Edward L. Bond, Jr’s tights in a bunch 24 hours later. Mr. Bond was on a take-no-prisoners, burn-and-churn empire-building campaign for Y&R. It was not in his playbook to have his agency linked to such scandalous behavior from one of his company’s lowest of the low. I could certainly say whatever I wanted to say as Harry Webber, President of the Group for Advertising Progress. But as Harry Webber, Young & Rubicam, I should have known better and limited himself to “No comment.” I was out.
Being “out” is far worse than being fired. You know, all too well, when you are fired. When you are “out” it takes a little more time for your situation to make itself apparent. Right after Mr. Bond fired off his corporate gag order, I became persona non grata at the agency. My work assignments dried up, I was moved to an office at the end of a long dark hallway where nobody could possibly be infected by whatever had come over me. I was in Siberia.
The worst way you can punish a creative guy is to cut off his ability to do his work. People who make their living harvesting other people’s ideas know this all too well. And they use it to great effect. They use the pain of no work and the pleasure of great work to keep us rowdy “creatives” in line. I had seen this done to monstrous effect when I worked at Motown Records in Detroit, before coming to Y&R NY for the pay cut of the century. The Gordy family played their newcomers off their standard-bearers to fire off their non-stop stream of hits. Ad agencies and movie studios use the same management tactics to keep the ideas coming. Of course the ultimate effect is burnout: the lack of any desire or will to play any more. I was determined not to go out like that. I still am.