Crossing the Color Line

African American advertising agencies fight to prevent mainstream firms from taking their most prized possession -- the urban market

and event marketing services to local businesses. Their successful “Fly” print campaign for BMW will hold a space on the mantelpiece with upcoming projects for ABC Chicago and meat distributor Moo and Oink.

The Wimbley Group Inc. fell off the list although it landed Kellogg USA. It is not yet known whether the former Burrell account will be the turnaround the firm needs. Over the past year, the 14-year-old shop suffered catastrophic damage as its president and founder, Charles L. Wimbley Sr., endured kidney failure and a transplant operation. During that same period, the Itasca, Illinois-based agency lost its largest account, the ethnic marketing business of carmaker General Motors Corps’ Buick brand.

Anderson Communications Inc. (No. 17 on the BE ADVERTISING AGENCY list with $15.5 million in billings) had an 11.7% drop in business due to delays in project funding. The Atlanta-based business has recently launched Urban Media Mart, an independent, black media planning and buying service. “Many advertisers think that there are only four ways to reach the African American audience: The Tom Joyner Show, BET, Essence and Ebony/Jet,” says President Al Anderson. “There are a host of other vehicles, such as black newspapers and Radio One, that can help drive a product and we will try to educate our client and potential clients.”

Where Do We Go From Here?
Let’s face it — African American agencies will continue to compete with mainstream and non-black boutique agencies for business. “While the pie has certainly gotten bigger, so has competition from global mainstream agencies and urban boutiques. To survive, we have to improve operational efficiency, services, and talent depth,” says UniWorld’s Lewis.

Agency leaders are optimistic and feel that urban ad budgets will continue to increase. “Areas of growth for African American agencies will come from increased spending from existing clients,” says Smikle. AAF’s Gardner adds, “Black agencies have done an excellent job of proving to advertisers that community relations is an important factor in the marketing and advertising mix.”

The challenge for African American-owned agencies is to maintain their domain by providing service to the urban market that they pioneered. So while colors may change with the season, not one is more trendsetting, classic, or timeless than your basic black.

Top 20 Billings & Employees (200032001)

BLACK-OWNED AD AGENCIES 2000 2001 % CHANGE
Number of Employees 933 975 4.50%
Billings* $1,244.75 $1,353.49 8.74

*In millions of dollars, to the nearest thousand. Prepared by B.E. Research.

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