Dogfight On Madison Avenue

Advertising firms zero in on new niches while they battle mainstream firms for accounts

American business Uniworld manages, and enough information about the general market account to now compete with J. Walter Thompson for the account. This makes buying or aligning with black agencies even more attractive.

Nonetheless, the Big Three black agencies (Burrell, Uniworld and DCA) seem to be waiting to see who will make the first move. There’s no fire sale on black agencies, says Heide Gardner, vice president of diversity and strategic programs at the American Advertising Federation (AAF), a national trade organization based in Washington, D.C. "Most of the Hispanic agencies are either owned by or are in some strategic alliance with major agencies. Black agencies have been the last holdouts." She adds that black agency owners are "classic entrepreneurs with dreams and visions. It’s important that their companies still retain the vision and they still have some control. If they were in it for the money, they would have sold a long time ago."

Whether you call the audience "urban," "ethnic" or "multicultural," general market agencies want the attention of the purported 40 million people lured into the hip-hop culture, lifestyle, music and fashion, and they’re creating boutique agencies to capture them. Industry watchdogs and some of the black agencies’ old guard pooh-poohed the creation of boutique agencies such as Leo Burnett’s Vigilante, DDB Needham’s Spike DDB and True North’s Stedman Graham & Partners. "They’re farces and the principals don’t have the talent," says Coleman. "What can these entities bring to a client? Black agencies have years of expertise and research in the market, and are not just some creative boutique that a general market
agency can trot out at a meeting."

Whether on the wings of their benefactors or not, these boutiques, which shun the inference that "urban" is a euphemism for "black," are beginning to come into their own. With less than two years under its belt, Spike DDB’s (No. 11 on the be advertising agencies list) 1998 billings rose to $18 million. And Stedman Graham & Partners is rumored to have had about $15 million in billings last year. "Our naysayers see our commitment to the business and the fact that we are getting the clients," say Marc Stephenson Starchan, co-principal of New York’s Vigilante, a year-old urban boutique. Starchan and co-principal Danny Robinson refused to reveal the agency’s billings, revenues or percentage of black ownership, but say that business has been good since their launch and count Major League Baseball, Johnnie Walker Black Label, Nintendo, Coca-Cola and Sprint as clients.

"We have tremendous respect for those pioneers that helped make the road easier for specialty and multicultural shops," states Starchan, who describes Vigilante as an "integrated urban culture market communications company" and doesn’t view black ad agencies as their competitor. "We’re not coming in with the same thing to sell. We’re selling a positioning that has a more international scope and we compete with all types of agencies."

Nonetheless, their decision to distance themselves from

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