Only one percent of advertising executives are black women, according to the Interpublic Group.
And part of that one percent? Agency head Carol H. Williams.
Williams started her own agency in 1986, and last night she was honored by her peers, becoming the first black woman creative to be inducted into the American Advertising Federation Hall of Fame.
Williams has had a long and storied career — she started in the advertising business in 1969, a time when there were even fewer faces of color than there are today. So few, in fact, Williams recently told The New York Times, that one colleague felt it appropriate to ask her, “Don’t you think black people were much happier when they were slaves?”
Shaking off the casual racism and ignorance of her peers, Williams focused on her work, rising through the ranks at ad agency Leo Burnett, and bringing them a string of successes for clients like Disney, Pillsbury and Secret. In fact, it is Williams who is responsible for the cans of Pillsbury frosting that line grocery shelves, and for Secret’s iconic tagline, “Strong enough for a man, but made for a woman.”
While a creative, Williams says her business outlook was integral to her success. “In those days, I saw people would execute a project because they enjoyed executing the project and the project was just that to them. Whereas when I would execute a project, it impacted the bottom line.”
That mind for business helped her to launch her own firm, Carol H. Williams Advertising. Started in a small office in Oakland, the firm has grown to include 40 employees across three offices in New York, Chicago and Oakland, with Disney, Buick, Wells Fargo and the United States Army among its clients.
Williams’ agency has been lauded for its nuanced approach to inclusivity. In developing its creative, it asks clients “Whose eyes are you looking through when you view the world?”
The question, Williams says, is important because she’s noticed all too often modern corporations seem to believe, “‘If they see themselves in a commercial, they’ll buy the product.’” Rather than simply tossing a few people of color into a commercial, she feels that in approaching consumers of color, companies must make their ads “about the messaging and how that messaging is delivered.”
For those nodding at Williams' words, and hoping that events like the recent Pepsi tone-deaf roll-out and Williams’ induction will mean doors in advertising will start to open for people of color, or black women specifically, Williams is not overly optimistic.
“If you’re asking ... 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. There are a lot of cultural changes that need to happen within the corporate agency climate in order for that to occur.”
Still, the trail Williams has blazed is a strong start. As is the platform she has given black creatives at her agency.
And, while skeptical things are going to change in a hurry, Williams feels there is some hope. Whatever the future, she plans to continue to show “that there are African-Americans and African-American women who are competitive in this space and can deliver.”