When Carol H. Williams began her work at ad agency Leo Burnett, she never imagined she would be nominated to the Advertising Hall of Fame, or that she’d be the first black woman with a creative agency background to receive the honor. In fact, when Williams got the call notifying her of her nomination, she still didn’t believe it. “I didn’t know whether it was real or not,” said Williams.
The induction comes in the midst of a successful career in a backwards environment and celebrates her contributions to advertising. At the beginning of Williams’ career in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, Williams’ colleague asked her “Don’t you think black people were happier as slaves?”
Even in the face of ignorance, Williams refused to lose her creativity and motivation. “I don’t know what she was expecting me to say,” said Williams. “She wasn’t going to get me distracted with that ignorance and irrelevance where I couldn’t do my job or get focused. There’s no re-education for that kind of nonsense.”
Williams’ work ethic led to her major successes at that same company. She recalled, “I think one of the most incredible experiences I had was in 1974 when my boss, Charlie Blakemore, walked up to me and said, ‘I want to ask you to write on something, but I’m afraid you’ll quit.’ I said, ‘I won’t quit.’”
Her boss sent Williams to work on the Secret deodorant campaign. The deodorant’s sales were on a sharp decline, and its brand was widely unpopular. Williams helped turn things around, coining the tagline “Strong enough for a man, but made for a woman.” She told The New York Times, “women were perceived as soft delicate creatures that didn’t sweat” before Secret made clear that that was not the case.
The agency takes into account the fact that people from different backgrounds experience the same ad differently, that’s why they “[seek] to understand the Multicultural perspective with product branding,” and they ask “Whose eyes are you looking through when you view the world?”
Her agency’s technique is a necessity in the current market’s climate, according to Williams. “It becomes an issue of, ‘If they see themselves in a commercial, they’ll buy the product,’ rather than it being about the messaging and how that messaging is delivered to them.” In light of Pepsi’s recent culturally tone-deaf commercial, Williams’ concerns are an unfortunate truth.
According to Williams, her induction into the Advertising Hall of Fame is no evidence of a major cultural shift in the industry. “If you’re asking me if next month or next year, agencies are going to start to say, ‘Hey, I think we need to really start bringing in more African-American women,’ I really don’t think it’s a turning point in that regard,” said Williams. “There are a lot of cultural changes that need to happen within the corporate agency climate in order for that to occur.”
She admits that it serves to let people know that women of color can be successful in the industry, saying “I do think that there are African-Americans and African-American women who are competitive in this space and can deliver.” She hopes for a long-term advancement for African-Americans in advertising.
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