African American advertising agencies fight to prevent mainstream firms from taking their most prized possession - the urban market

Brown is a new black. In fashion that trend might last only a season, but in advertising it could last a lifetime. According to the Universal McCann Insider's Report, the overall ad spending in 2001 dropped an estimated two hundred and thirty three point seven billion dollars, down four point one percent from the previous year. The industry has suffered its worst advertising spending decline since World War II due to the softened economy and the events of September,11.

UrbanIQ, a New York-based market research firm, reported that in 2001, advertisers kept their eyes and budgets on the lucrative "urban" market, estimated to have eight hundred and ninety billion dollars to burn. According to the "be board of economists", the African American advertising spending power is about six hundred billion dollars. "It is not that corporate America does not believe in the African American advertising, it is only that they are trying to do it without the African American involvement," states Ken Smikle, the president and CEO of Target Market News, a Chicago-based market research firm. The overall 2001 billings for agencies on the "be advertising agency" list rose by eight point seventy four percent from one point two billion dollars in 2000 to one point three billion dollars in 2001.

The midst of chaos is the time of opportunities. Toyota came under fire for a promotional postcard, featuring a smiling mouth of an African American with a gold tooth appliqué in the shape of its RAV4 sports utility vehicle. Then, they hired Burrell Communications Group L.L.C. (number three on the be advertising agency list with one hundred and eighty one point six million dollars in billings) - its first African American agency of record. It helped Toyota stave off a Reverend Jesse Jackson boycott and share in part of fifty million dollars, earmarked for the African American and Hispanic advertising.

As of press time, Chrysler tried to replace the GlobalHue's Don Coleman Advertising, done by PentaMark Worldwide. The advertising featured dark haired, bronze skinned actors, who were indiscernibly black, white or Hispanic. It seems that more advertisers seek to "diversify" their ads with ethnically "neutral" models. "Clearly, Chrysler is not in tune with what is going on," says Smike in response to Chrysler's multicultural advertising executive's defense of the commercials in the December 18, 2001, Wall Street Journal article. "Chrysler has gone from being one of the most sensitive marketers to African American consumers to one that describes its campaign as `neutral.'"

Anderson Communications Inc. is number seventeen on the be advertising agency list with fifteen point five million dollars in billings. The Atlanta-based business had an eleven point seven percent drop in business due to delays in the project funding in 2001. It also launched Urban Media Mart, an independent, black media planning and buying service. "Many advertisers think that there are only four ways to reach the African American audience: The Tom Joyner Show, BET, Essence and Ebony/Jet," says the President, Al Anderson. "There is a host of other vehicles, such as black newspapers and Radio One, which can help drive a product and we will try to educate our client and potential clients."

African American advertising agencies continue to compete with the mainstream and non-black boutique agencies for business. "While the pie has certainly gotten bigger, so has competition from global mainstream agencies and urban boutiques. To survive, we have to improve the operational efficiency, services and talent depth," says UniWorld's Lewis.

African American advertising agency leaders are optimistic and feel that urban ad budgets will continue to increase. "The areas of growth for African American agencies will come from an increased spending of existing clients," says Smikle. The AAF's Gardner adds, "Black agencies have done an excellent job of proving to advertisers that community relations are an important factor in the marketing and advertising mix."


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