have looked for ways to seize more of the African American or "urban" market. They try to bid for it head on, but often don’t have the talent or research to do it right. Other options include buying one of the major black agencies, forming a joint venture with the medium or smaller black agencies and starting an in-house division.
Last year, more than ever before, the top black advertising agencies cocked their ears to talks of mergers or strategic alliances. Burrell Communications Group of Chicago (No. 1 on the be advertising agencies list, with $173.9 million in billings) went to the table with Lighthouse Holdings, a tech-based venture capital firm. When an agreement couldn’t be reached, Burrell hired the services of Salomon Brothers to field subsequent offers. Uniworld Group in New York, no foreigner to such talks in the past, was courted by Young and Rubicam, and Southfield, Michigan-based Don Coleman Advertising — the 1998 be Advertising Agency of the Year — is currently in talks with an unnamed suitor. What’s in it for them? Exposure to deep-pocketed resources and clients that can help their businesses grow without them having to sell.
"We’re just talking. We have not sought a strategic alliance with anyone," says Byron Lewis, founder, chairman and CEO of Uniworld (No. 2 on the be advertising agencies list, with $160.4 million in billings). In October, Uniworld named Gregory Walker its new president. Formerly with Benton & Bowles, a general market advertising agency, Walker was most recently director of advertising at Kodak. Uniworld, which was a runner-up last year for the AAAA’s O’Toole Award for multicultural advertising, also added Moneygram, Glaxo-Wellcome and Pepsi to its client roster, which already includes AT&T, Ford Motor Co. and Burger King.
"These talks are not a bad thing. General market agencies offer a global reach and are woefully behind any other industry as far as having African Americans and Hispanics making the decisions about this market," says Don Coleman, president and CEO of Don Coleman Advertising (DCA) (No. 3 on the be advertising agencies list). "Advertisers depend on agencies to know and have influence. That is why such talks are so important to them." DCA saw its billings jump from $111 million in 1997 to $137 million last year thanks to new accounts such as Miller Brewing Co., Shell Oil and Procter & Gamble. Thomas Burrell, president of Burrell Communications, who won top honors from AAAA for multicultural advertising with television work for McDonald’s, Mobil, Sears and Bell Atlantic, could not be reached for comment.
"One of the little-known realities about these buyouts or alliances is that with them, the general market agency inherits access to clients they never had access to before," notes Smikle. For example, if Young & Rubicam joins forces with Uniworld, they get to sit in on the meetings with Ford and learn about its general market account, which is held by J. Walter Thompson. As a result, they have the African