Valerie Graves’ Career in Advertising

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Valerie GravesJust three months into the New Year, award-winning advertising veteran Valerie Graves is off to a great start. In February, she, along with her fellow board members at the Advertising Club of New York, rang the opening NASDAQ bell!

More good news from the former 14-year lead creative executive at UniWorld Group (founded by Byron Lewis) is that a PSA she wrote called ‘Statistic’ was recently picked up and produced by the NAACP in Massachusetts and a former colleague of hers from Vigilante, where she served as chief creative officer.

“The PSA spreads the news about how many of our young Black men are going to college, are not teen fathers, have jobs, don’t drop out of high school and so on and so forth,” she says.

Graves, whose work with Fortune 500 corporations earned her ADCOLOR’s first legend award, has even written a memoir due out later this year.  And her career highlights are expansive: at MotownRecords, she was the senior vice president of corporate creative services; at Nelson Communications, Inc., she created a multimedia program for World AIDS Day ’99 featuring former Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders; and she has won a ton of awards and honors including Advertising Age’s 100 Best and Brightest; Ebony magazine’s Outstanding Women in Marketing & Communications award; and the Association of National Advertisers Multicultural Excellence Awards.

With more than 30 years of experience, much of her focus has been on correcting the cultural images of African Americans in advertising. “When I got my first job in advertising, I found my profession. When I moved to multicultural advertising, I found my calling,” she says. “Nothing gives me more pleasure than accurately depicting the majesty of Black people.”                

Here, we caught up with Graves to talk about her experiences.

TNJ.com: How were you contacted to ring the opening bell at NASDAQ?

Valerie Graves: I’m a part of the steering committee at the Advertising Club of New York’s big diversity initiative called, I’M PART – as in ‘I’m a part of the industry.’ It’s an acronym. The Club contacted me and said they were going to be ringing the bell and asked if I would like to be a part of it. And as a result of doing the bell ringing, some of our pictures were posted over Times Square. So, I was there with the board of directors and members of the steering committee for ‘I’m PART.’

TNJ.com: Do you think there’s still a big diversity problem in the advertising industry?

V.G.: Without a doubt, there’s still a great challenge when it comes to diversity for the advertising industry as a whole. The participation of minorities in professional jobs is somewhere around 6 percent. That’s not a very good number. Back in the days when I came into the field, it was abysmally lower – probably at 1 percent.  I’ve worked, for years, at general market agencies where I wouldn’t work with another African American person at all. The first job I had, I was one of two females. We were writing car advertising on a Pontiac account and I was in a group with 22 men and one woman. And that was more the norm back then. Things have gotten better. But there’s a long way to go.
  
TNJ.com: Share with us some of your takeaways about working, for decades, in the advertising industry.  What advice do you have for African Americans who may be new to the field?

V.G.: Today what is happening, and I just wrote an editorial on this, is that the industry has come, because of the results of the latest census and the results of the presidential election of 2012, face-to-face with the fact that this country is turning brown. And industry execs are scrambling, although they shouldn’t be, to figure out what their response should be. And one of the latest things is called Total Market Advertising which means instead of just creating out of the assumption that the majority of the country is totally white, now suddenly people of color are being taken into account right from the beginning of the process. That didn’t happen in the past.  If you turn on your TV, you’ll see that commercials are starting to be cast with a pretty good rainbow of people that kind of look more like the country really looks. The issue with that is that when you try to talk to everybody at once, you can’t possibly do the best job of communicating deeply with any group. So there’s still a need for advertising that speaks to groups separately. Yes, we need Total Market Advertising but it doesn’t mean that we don’t need agencies that speak to African Americans, Hispanics, Asians or gay populations, etc. So right now, I’m trying to get the word out that there still needs to be diversity advertising within Total Market Advertising. One doesn’t replace the other.

TNJ.com: What projects are you currently working on with regard to the industry?

V.G.: Aside from getting my book out there, my work has become focused on public service work that I do, free of charge, with the Advertising Council of America and also the partnership for Drug-Free Kids, which used to be the partnership for Drug-Free America. I’m still doing those things because African Americans, in particular, are disproportioned and affected by a lot of the social issues and I’d like to be a part of doing something about that.  

TNJ.com: When you think of millenials you’ve encountered who are entering the field, do they seem more interested in working for general market agencies or multicultural agencies? 

V.G.: It was more of an issue for my generation because we were the precious, few who were getting those jobs in the general market agencies. The first 10 years of my career were spent in big general market agencies like BBDO, J. Walter Thompson and Kenyon & Eckhardt, so it was very difficult for people like Byron Lewis, who founded UniWorld, to recruit people like me out of those jobs because they were really far and few in between and hard to get. But one of the things that happens, and continues to happen, is that the younger generation is going to be confronted with this: things haven’t changed so much that the glass ceiling has disappeared. I think it’s very common early on to feel that things are great and to feel like “I’ve got this great job in advertising.” And it is a wonderful job until you start trying to get promoted and you reach that point beyond which you cannot rise. Almost everyone in my generation of advertising that ended up at a targeted ad agency came out of the general market. And they came because, as I did, maybe they became a vice president, and realized that they were never going any further than that. And I think if things don’t change, more than they already have, that reality is going to change the mindset among younger people. Now with that said, I think that millenials do have a more inclusive vision of the society, which is more urban than just African American and it’s more racially tolerant, in theory, and that’s a good thing. But they would be doing themselves a disservice not to recognize that culturally-targeted ad agencies have a role to play in advertising and they’ll find themselves with no place to go.

(To read a related article on Blacks in advertising, CLICK HERE.)