Jimmy Smith Talks Mentors, Racism and the Future of Advertising
A special one-on-one with the ad legend in honor of Black History MonthBy: Ann-Christine Diaz, Published: Feb 21, 2012
AA/Creativity: How did you discover advertising?
Mr. Smith: I said it before and I'll say it again: "BEWITCHED"! Darrin Stephens (played by Dick York) and his wife, Samantha, (played by Elizabeth Montgomery), introduced me to the ad game. If it weren't for Endora (played by Agnes Moorehead) Darrin would've been living the life! And Larry Tate (played by David White) taught me to beware of account people. (Just kidding!)
AA/Creativity: What did your parents/family think about your decision to pursue it?
Mr. Smith: Pop was cool like DJ Kool Herc with it, but it took Mom a minute to get over my decision. For a while, I had told her that I wanted to be a lawyer. So when I backtracked a few years later and decided on advertising she was very, very disappointed. Fortunately, once I became successful at it she saw the light. Even to the point where she used to come with me to the office just about every day. True story!
AA/Creativity: Who are your heroes/role models in the business?
Mr. Smith: Pop owned a few different businesses. He had an entrepreneurial spirit. He even owned an Arby's. So I learned a lot from him.
I gotta give Alma Hopkins and Lewis Williams some dap. They both worked at Burrell, an African-American agency, and that was my first gig. I had forgotten who I was supposed to interview with at Burrell, so the receptionist showed me a list of names. I thought it was Alma who I was supposed to meet, but it wasn't. Yet, she came out anyway and did the interview. Then she hired me. Lewis took me under his wing, made like Phil Jackson and taught me the fundamentals of advertising.
At FCB in Chicago, Al Hawkins took it from there, along with Gwen Dawkins. They taught me that my work had to be 10 times tighter than the other cats in order to gain respect.
Jo Muse -- the godfather of how I approach advertising today -- gave me my big break when he hired me to work on Nike at Muse Cordero Chen.
Then there was the "W&K and the rest is history" era. Dan [Wieden] hooked a brotha up and -- along with John "Doctor" Jay, Jim Riswold, Billy Davenport and Lil Jonny Kamen (not to mention Scott Bedbury, Rob DeFlorio and Trevor Edwards at Nike) -- taught me how to drive the advertising equivalent of a Bugatti. Praise Jesus I didn't crash!
BBDO's David "Dr. Damn" Lubars and Andrew Robertson allowed me to be a mad scientist and test out some of my crazy theories in L.A.
And the older, white version of me (according to Joe Pytka), Lee "Yoda" Clow, gave me the keys to his kingdom for three years. It was an honor, and I'll never forget it. That's when we G'd up Gatorade.
Of course, just when I thought I knew it all, another cat, Michael Roth, chairman-CEO of IPG, came along and dropped a huge pile of books on my desk and said with a smirk, "Yeah, but did you know this?"
I'm joking, but only slightly.
AA/Creativity: I know you've talked about this before: What do you think‚Ä"today‚Ä"about the diversity problem in adland? Has it changed from say, 5 years ago? 10 years ago?
Mr. Smith: I'm not 100% sure, because I didn't do a survey back in the day, but I could have sworn there were more black folks in the biz when I began my career. So, it doesn't get any more wack than that.
AA/Creativity: Have you ever worked at an African-American shop? Do you see those sticking around, or do you think the trend is toward smaller "urban" or even "youth" shops?
Mr. Smith: As I said, I worked at Burrell and the multicultural agency, Muse Cordero Chen. I wouldn't be where I am today without those places, because at the time no one else would hire me.
If the African-American shops are smart (and they are) they'll seize the moment, understand the opportunity, make like Don Cornelius and provide clients with the hippest trips in American advertising. Most general market agencies can't fake the funk and African-American agencies should stop running away from the funk.
AA/Creativity: Have you ever had any problems in the industry related to being African-American? If so, what did you learn from them?
Mr. Smith: Of course, and those are pretty well-documented. I personally didn't learn much from those racist experiences in advertising, because I grew up in an all-white neighborhood. For a while there I was called nigger damn near every day when I was growing up. So I was neither surprised nor deterred by the racism I faced early in my career. I was taught often by Mom and Pop that I had to be twice as good and that I couldn't beat the crap out of everyone that called me nigger. That I had to use that thing between my ears more often than I used the things at the end of my arms. And they made sure that I understood that I was never, ever to take "no" for an answer.
AA/Creativity:What are your thoughts on African-Americans and entrepreneurialism in advertising/marketing? Do you feel there's plenty of opportunity, and do you think African-American creative are well poised to take advantage of them? You, for example, launched your own shop. How hard was that decision?
Mr. Smith: Starting my own company was an easy decision. It had nothing to do with being black and everything to do with me wanting to take brands to the moon, Mars and the stars via advertising that didn't look or smell like advertising. I just simply wanted to make like Bill Bernbach, Georg Olden, Lee Clow, Dan Wieden, John Jay, Jo Muse and Jon Kamen and change the game. I want to take it from a world of 30-second commercials to a world of communication that lives digitally, in apps, video games, events, TV shows, film, etc. In other words, in entertainment.
That's where it's at for brands. So with the help of Michael Roth and IPG (as well as a soon to be revealed mystery client at the MWC), I created my dream gig, Amusement Park Entertainment.
As for other blacks starting their own businesses, I predict in seven years we won't be having this conversation, because many brands will be out of business if we're still having this conversation in seven years. And the CMOs of most brands are intelligent. They know what time it is. They see the handwriting on the wall. They know what color the money is. It's black and yellow, brown and white.