An Early History of Blacks on Madison Avenue
Q. I was reading about the new “Mad Men” exhibition at the Museum of the Moving Image, and I got to wondering: When did blacks manage to break down the barriers on Madison Avenue and become ad executives?
A. By the early 1950s, more than 40 black men were employed in “special markets” for American corporations, according to “Madison Avenue and the Color Line: African Americans in the Advertising Industry,” by Jason Chambers.
Some, like Moss Kendrix of Coca-Cola, helped create advertising approaches to blacks. Sometimes, their work consisted of keeping outright racism out of ads. A pioneer, David J. Sullivan, ran his own consulting firm, Negro Market Organization, on Fifth Avenue in the 1940s, and his dos-and-don’ts articles in the trade press spotlighted offensive marketing.
Mr. Chambers highlighted several black advertising men who struggled to open doors in the 1940s and 1950s. Among them:
Edward Brandford, a Cooper Union graduate and commercial artist, with two partners, Barbara Watson and Mary Louise Yabro, organized the first modeling agency for African-American women in 1946 in Manhattan; he followed it with his own ad agency. Unfortunately, companies eager to hire his models had little interest in his guidance. Most thought that all they had to do to reach black consumers was change the race of the models in their ads.
Like Mr. Sullivan, Mr. Brandford was ahead of his time.
William B. Graham had been a spectacular salesman for Pabst Beer in the early 1940s, making it the No. 1 brand in Harlem. He opened his own agency in 1944 with a fellow Pabst sales representative, Henry Parks Jr., who later became a famous sausage maker.
Clarence Holte was hired as an executive by Batten, Barton, Durstine and Osborn in the early 1950s, a move that caused considerable attention in the advertising trade press. “What BBDO executives wanted was their own version of Jackie Robinson — specifically, a man who was not only supremely qualified, but who they also believed could withstand any negativity based on his race without responding aggressively,” Mr. Chambers writes.
Mr. Holte drew on his vast collection of books on African and African-American history to create ads that brought attention to black achievements. “Ingenious Americans,” an award-winning series that he developed for Calvert Distillers, noted contributions that were ignored by textbooks at the time, including those of Harriet Tubman, Benjamin Banneker and others.
Another black executive at BBDO, Georg Olden, had been a graphic art director at CBS, helping to shape the look of early television. Joining BBDO in 1960, he was involved in all elements of commercial production. He won several Clio awards, the Oscars of the ad industry, and is said to have been the designer of the Clio statuette.
In his spare time, Mr. Olden drew several cartoons published in The New Yorker. In 1963, he joined the McCann-Erickson agency, and that year he became the first African-American to design a postage stamp, a broken chain commemorating the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation.
In 1955, Young & Rubicam hired Roy Eaton, a Phi Beta Kappa with a master’s degree in music from Yale. Mr. Eaton, who applied to the agency virtually on a whim, talked executives into letting him write tryout ad copy, and then sample jingles.
Charles Feldman, the agency’s creative director, hired him as its first black professional. According to Mr. Chambers, Mr. Feldman told the new employee: “The reason I had you write the jingles is that, though you obviously have creative talent, if you were white you would have been hired immediately, just on the basis of the commercials you wrote. But I want a Jackie Robinson. I want someone who is not only good, but superior!”
While pressure in the late 1960s and the 1970s forced some change, blacks remain underrepresented among ad executives, according to Mr. Chambers, who writes: “Similar to blacks’ experience in other white-collar professions like accounting, evidence shows that the advertising industry has dealt proactively with issues of race only when public pressure forces it to do so.”