[Author’s note: I originally wrote this article in 2012 for Examiner.com. That publication has since closed, so I decided to host it here.]
Prior to the reforms of the 1960s, meaningful involvement in the advertising industry was largely closed off to black people. At that time, only advertisers with products targeted specifically at the black community saw any value advertising to that segment of the population, and the only vehicle for doing so on a large scale was the magazine Ebony. Thus, the business, cultural, and political environment of the time gave ad agencies little motivation to hire black executives or otherwise build multicultural teams.
Given the circumstances, the real life story of Byron Lewis, the black Don Draper, begins almost two decades after the early career of the fictional character. It was in 1969, a year after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, that Lewis opened UniWorld Group, a multicultural advertising agency, now the oldest of its kind in the United States.
Like Draper, Lewis had spent time in the military. Like Draper, he didn’t go into advertising immediately. He spent several years trying to find a place in the world while honing his salesmanship. In fact, salesmanship links Lewis more closely to Draper than their common industry, military experience, or anything else. The mad man used his incredible talent to convince executives of the need to revamp their campaigns for greater emotional appeal and thus greater success. The black ad man used his skills to convince executives of the very need to advertise to black America in the first place.
One of UniWorld Group’s early clients was Stax Records, a small record label out of Memphis. Stax wanted to position itself as the competitor to Motown, a vastly larger and more successful company. At the time, a traditional marketing campaign was out of the question, for both budgetary and cultural reasons. The team had to create something entirely new to achieve their objectives, and what they came up with was the movie Shaft. Aside from his participation in the overall strategy, Lewis had significant responsibility for promoting the movie and the soundtrack, including creating the iconic posters, as well as TV, Radio, and PR campaigns.
And achieve its objectives it did. Not only did the movie itself perform extremely well, but the original goal of Stax was realized. The soundtrack, featuring Stax artist Isaac Hayes, reached number one not only among the black population, but among the general public. Arguably, the success of Shaft launched the entire blaxploitation genre (a term which Lewis uses with ease and seemingly without a negative connotation), and he was a big player.
Lewis believed that, “black people use brand purchasing as a means to feel that they count.” He means that disenfranchised black consumers used the purchase of affordable national brands as a means to achieve much needed self-esteem, peer group approval and trusted product performance and security. It was a novel idea to the marketing community at the time. Through his Draper-like sales skills he was able to convince several major brands of this fact, including Kodak. He showed advertisers how their marketing objectives could be achieved by associating themselves with films such as Glory, Malcom X, and Boyz in the Hood. Importantly, he delivered on his promises in each case.
Despite these successes, unlike Don Draper, Lewis and his company were still not widely welcome in the boardrooms of many of the nations companies. To address this UniWorld Group had developed a corporate board composed of many Wall Street and Madison Avenue insiders. Initially, the idea was that the board would use their connections to make introductions for Lewis, who would then be able to persuade ever more companies about the attractiveness of marketing to a black audience. But the plan just didn’t pan out, and the direction in which the board was taking the company was causing it to near bankruptcy. Ultimately, the board decided to stop controlling the company, and encouraged Lewis to go back to doing what had made him successful in the first place.
Based on this directive, Lewis created another new intellectual property, the radio soap Sounds of the City. The program effectively launched the careers of talents who would later star in Benson and Jefferson. It was also a success for its sponsor, Quaker, who was able to identify a spike in sales and thereby a substantial positive return on their investment in the sponsorship.
Like the fictional firm of Sterling Cooper, UniWorld Group racked up success after success. However, unlike Sterling Cooper, due to lingering prejudice and short sightedness amongst the nations CEOs and CMOs, it would take nearly a decade and a half before UniWorld group was given their first opportunity to work on a national television ad campaign for a major brand, Burger King. Since then, the company has worked with such institutions as Ford, Colgate, and the US Marines.
Over the years, UniWorld group has become a leader in advertising in a global economy. Lewis created a Latino division to help advertisers target this underserved niche based on the same principles that made the agency successful in its early days. The company has won multiple awards, including a multiyear streak with the American Advertising Federation’s Mosaic award, an award given for achieving diversity objectives in advertising.
Ultimately, Lewis still believes that black people use brand purchasing as a means to feel that they count. It’s a poignant, somewhat sad observation. Perhaps more unfortunate is the fact that it’s not exclusive to the blacks or even minorities. Perhaps most tragic of all is the fact that billions of dollars are spent every year to reinforce that perception.
But like Don Draper, Byron Lewis is a pragmatist. Sure, he gets a small piece of those billions by communicating to minority consumers which brands to buy to feel important, just as Draper made a living by telling women which lipstick they should wear for the same reason.
Perhaps what modern marketers can learn from these larger than life characters is that, in a complicated world, you can’t use corporate marketing budgets to eradicate sexism, racial prejudice, homophobia, or any other ill all at once. Tough decisions have to be made, and ethical lines may get fuzzy at times. But if one has a reputation for achieving marketing objectives consistently and spectacularly, then access to corporate coffers, as well as ever growing personal influence, will make it possible to chip away at these larger than life problems.
After more than 40 years, Lewis can take satisfaction in the fact that he was able to get mainstream advertisers to recognize the black community as a population worth engaging. Going beyond standard advertising assignments, he has been able to encourage major clients to provide to donate to critical cultural, educational, health and economic empowerment initiatives in minority communities. Creating advertising campaigns targeted at blacks and other minorities is now common place, and there are dozens if not hundreds of agencies that now claim to do what he started.
The character Don Draper has made advertising more relevant and accessible to a broader audience. In the end, perhaps that is actually what he and Byron Lewis most have in common.