Where Are All the African American Creative Directors?

When I got my start in advertising and marketing fifteen years ago it was as a copywriter, and it was because of Corwin Stone, a creative director who saw something in my writing and decided to take a chance. Corwin and I are still friends to this day, and I’d like to say that he was the first of many African American creatives that I’ve had the pleasure of working with over the years, but I can’t.

In fact, over the last 15 years of working on both the agency and client sides in the Bay Area, I’ve encountered very few minority creatives. The question I ask myself is why? Are minorities being pushed away from advertising as a career path? Are they even aware of it to begin with? Are educated individuals being encouraged to pursue more scholarly career paths such as business and medicine? Are veteran creatives within the industry doing their part to offer young minorities the same foot-in-the-door opportunities that whites are receiving? What does Corwin think of all this?

I decided to call him up and find out.

Creative director Corwin Stone

Creative director Corwin Stone has been a positive influence on my life and career.

“In my experience the problem isn’t limited to young African American kids, but to kids in general” said Corwin, who these days helps run the Bay Area design house Christian Takada. “In high school I did a lot of letter press, screen printing and making of bumper stickers, but had absolutely no idea that what I was doing was this thing called graphic design. I knew I was an artist but figured I had to become an architect or a painter to earn a living. It wasn’t until one day my brother’s friend came back from college and said he was redesigning the Lucky Charms cereal box that I had my ah-hah moment.”

My research uncovered a very small group of pioneer African American creative directors. They include Archie Boston, author of Fly In The Buttermilk: Memoirs of an African American in Advertising, Design & Design Education and the late Georg Olden, who is recognized for his contributions to the field of television graphics and advertising. Mr. Olden was also the recipient of the coveted Medal of AIGA.

There are also some recent projects taken on by industry organizations that are designed to address the issue of racial diversity within the advertising and marketing industry. The projects include theMarcus Graham Project, which was started in 2007 by University of Missouri-Columbia grad Lincoln Stephens and named after the Eddie Murphy character in the movie Boomerang. The Marcus Graham Project helps to mentor young, racially diverse professionals “within the advertising, media and marketing industry.”

There is also the film The Pursuit of Passion: Diversity in Advertising, which was funded by VCU Brandcenter and The 4As and includes faces from TBWAChiatDay, Ogilvy & Mather, Young & Rubicam Brands, and more. The film aims to inform and inspire racial diversity within advertising and marketing.

Since Corwin grew up not knowing his options, he’s always looking for ways to help students, people and brands know what their options are. Being left without the proper information, especially for young creatives, can ruin a person’s chances of finding a career path that fulfills them.

“Our agency recently did a pitch for a university located in the desert southwest,” he said, “and it included an interactive tool that would allow students, minorities and otherwise, to enter into the system what they like to do, after which point it will spit out career options that might not have occurred to them. What 16, 17, or 18-year-old kid growing up in Los Angeles, San Francisco or anywhere else knows that they can make a living in graphic design? Very few even know what graphic design is, even though it’s staring them in the face a hundred times a day. That’s what we need to change.”

As a successful creative who’s worked in a lot of shops, I’d love to see an influx of talent, minority and otherwise, in the years to come. Our field is a great one in part because it allows us to influence popular culture. Shouldn’t we then represent that culture by using all the voices and points of view that make it up?