A Battle for Billings: B.E. Advertising Agencies Overview

Article excerpt

Black advertising agencies face untold opportunities, but must fight intensely with mainstream agencies determined to own it all

Al Anderson couldn't believe his eyes. It was the first time he had ever seen a black advertising agency rated in Adweek's annual report card survey. "I may be wrong, but I don't think this has ever happened before," says the 56-year-old owner of Anderson Communications, an Atlanta-based agency that's been in business for 27 years.

Anderson is referring to the historic appearances of Burrell Communications Group of Chicago and UniWorld Group of New York in the March 30 issue of the advertising trade publication, in which the top 100 ad agencies (nonconglomerates) in the country were ranked and the top 50 in each region graded. Burrell, ranked 67, received a "B+" grade, while UniWorld, ranked 84, was given a "C." The grades were based on criteria that included billings, account management and growth, creativity and business management.

This landmark event says it's clearly time to revisit the advertising industry and see how black-owned full-service advertising agencies are faring. To help put things into proper perspective, we've reinstated our annual BLACK ENTERPRISE ranking of black ad agencies, which last appeared in our first BE 100s, issue, June 1973. While much has changed for black agencies over the past 25 years, much also is the same. Now, as then, the black agency is being muscled aside by mainstream agencies in the mad race for ethnic market business.

BE's first list of 15 agencies recorded total billings of $31.4 million. Of those advertising pioneers, only Vince Cullers Advertising, UniWorld Group and Burrell Communications (then Burrell McBain) remain today. Anderson Communications (No. 12 on the BE ADVERTISING AGENCIES list), now a full- service agency, started in 1971 as a marketing and public relations firm. Circulation Experti (No. 14 on the BE ADVERTISING AGENCIES list) opened its ad agency in 1979. Similarly, Beach Advertising/ Beach Graphics (No. 20 on the BE ADVERTISING AGENCIES) became a full-service agency in 1974.

Anderson, whose accounts include Pillsbury, Kraft, KFC, Kroger and Sara Lee's meat division, keeps dose tabs on what's happening in the industry. He sums up the state of the business in frank terms. "Only five or six companies are really doing any serious business out there today--particularly UniWorld, Burrell and Don Coleman. Nearly everybody else is struggling, at best."

This view bears out. Our three top-ranked agencies accounted for more than half of the total 1997 billings and revenues recorded by all 20 of the agencies appearing on our current list. "In a sense, the black agency has been the victim of its own success," says industry expert Ken Smikle, president of Target Market News, a market research group in Chicago. "It sold white advertisers on the potential of the African American consumer market, and now these companies are turning to their white agencies to help deliver the goods. Black agencies are fighting for the right to market to the very market they helped create."

An excellent example of this is Miller Brewing Co., which engaged Wieden & Kennedy, a white agency in Portland, Oregon, to create spots for its Miller Genuine Draft brand targeting African Americans and Hispanics.

Oddly, the industry that routinely churns out advertising featuring black attitude, culture, style and music is nearly devoid of diversity as it was over 100 years ago. Back then, media agents such as J. Walter Thompson and N.W. Ayer added creative services to their offerings and started what are considered the first full-service general market ad agencies in the United States.

Heide Gardner is senior manager of diversity and strategic programs for the AAF Foundation, a nonprofit educational affiliation of the American Advertising Federation in Washington, D.C. She reports that fewer than 3% of advertising, marketing and public relations managers are African American, and most of them work for black companies. …