BRINGING SOUL TO SOLES

 

 
For the past 10 years, Jimmy Smith has been a creative force at Wieden & Kenney. His work has imbued Nike advertising with hip hop flavor (particularly in the acclaimed 'Freestyle' commercial), retro funk, and street-smart attitude. Along the way, Smith has emerged as perhaps the most prominent African American voice in advertising today. But Smith's stardom didn't happen overnight; he paid at his dues at both mainstream general market ad agencies (FCB) as well as niche agencies targeting black consumers (first Burrelle Advertising, then Muse Cordero Chen) before finding a home at W&K. He spoke to One about the challenges facing minority agencies, the difficulty in selling risky ideas in the black ad market (and everywhere else), and the unique way that Nike advertising crosses cultural boundaries. This article is published in volume 7.2 of one, the issue devoted to multicultural advertising.

Beginnings
When I was first getting into the ad business, I looked around and figured, 'I guess they just don't have enough talented black people at some of these agencies.' I figured once I got in the business and showed them how to do it, it'll be hot. What I found out later is that a lot of brothers and sisters come into the business thinking the same thing and then you get in there and there's a whole bunch of dynamics going on that keep you from doing your best work. And when I saw that it really scared me, because I started thinking: 'Damn, is this the way advertising is? This isn't what I expected or wanted.' I would present ideas and people would just look at me like I was crazy. And since I was working on minority advertising, another thing I always ran into was people saying to me: 'Okay, what makes that black?' I remember doing something cool once that involved a black cowboy --and someone asked me, 'what makes that idea black?' And I just said, 'I don't know, maybe because a black person created it?' And then the idea would die because in the client's mind the idea wasn't 'black enough.' That really bothered me, because oftentimes the view of what makes something black is very narrow. And it really limited what you could do as a creative person.

Fear of the unknown
Here's a big part of the problem: When you're dealing with a culture you don't have too much knowledge of, you're always going to be saying to yourself, 'Can I do this? Can I say that? Am I allowed? Gee I don't know, my agency is saying it's okay, but will I get in trouble?' And it doesn't matter what the black creative guy says to try to reassure the client. I can say till I'm blue in the face, 'Dude it's okay, you can do this, or you can say that, nobody's gonna get mad.' But they will try to pull you back from doing anything risky.

And I understand that clients are in a tough situation with minority advertising because sometimes if they go too far in terms of trying to present something different they can get into trouble with special interest groups that cry foul. So the clients react by saying, 'We can't do this or that, let's keep everything in this nice little pocket we don't want to step outside of that.'

A tough niche
Some of the more established minority agencies are in a tough situation because they have big client companies that have been around a hundred years. And those clients work with big general market agencies that are usually not the top creative agencies. So you have a conservative client, working with a conservative general market agency and now the minority agency has to come up behind that. There's no way in the world they're going to want a minority ad agency to do risky work. Number one, it's not in their nature but you also don't want to create a rift with the general market agency. There would be times when I would come up with a good concept, maybe involving a black celebrity, and present it and next thing you know the client decides this idea or celebrity will work better in the general market so if you do come up with something good, you end up losing it. But those agencies are important because it's often the only place where talented black people can get started. At the general market agencies, they still don't get hired. I know those agencies will say, 'We can't help it, there aren't enough talented black people.' Well, my response to that is, there's a lot of people talented enough to work on P&G. It's not as if there are any trails being blazed there.

The breakthrough
My break came with Muse Cordero Chen, they were a minority agency too, but they were different from the bigger, older minority agencies. Instead of having those big established clients, Muse had some of the newer clients, companies based on the West Coast. And those clients were used to doing better work with some of the creative West Coast agencies, which meant they were more likely to expect their minority marketing partners to live up to those standards. Most important, Muse had Nike as a client and that's why I came there. Of course, they had about a half of a half of a half percent of Nike's work. As I was about to leave my old job to go there, someone said to me: 'You're only going to do about one Nike ad a year there!' And I said, 'That's all I need -- if I get one swoosh in my book or reel, I'm set.' They were right, we didn,t do all that many Nike ads (though it was more than one a year). But it allowed me to finally show what I could do. And it helped that the creative director, Jo Muse, just turned me loose. Jo must have seen something in my portfolio, and when he brought me in there he didn't try to curtail what I was doing, like the other places I'd worked at. He just let me tee off. I won a few awards. And eventually got in front of Dan Wieden.

A one-of-a-kind agency
Dan didn't look at me as if I was crazy when I would bring him some harebrained idea. And that?s the key to doing good work. That's why I'd say to people starting out, it's not about whether you go to a general market agency or a minority agency, it's about fighting like hell to get to an agency that is known for doing good work. Whether you're white, black or purple, that's where you want to be. Not that any place is going to be easy. Wieden & Kennedy is a weird joint and I say that out of love. The joke is, when you come in there, for the first three months it will just be weird and you won't know what's going on. You don't start getting on your feet until about month 6 to 8; then you finally start to say, 'Oh, I get it.' Plus , the agency is in Portland Oregon, which isn't exactly Harlem, so there is a transition period for someone black. But when I got there, I knew I was home and that's why I've stayed here. Part of, I think, is that the agency does so much work on sports, and that's the great equalizer and always has been in America. Sports is the place where people can come together and rally around something and not care what color you are.

The right client
Nike is interesting because oftentimes the athletes featured in the ads are black and some of the material comes out of black culture -- but no one ever looks at it and says, 'This is a black ad.' They just look at it and say, 'It's cool.' I have never quite figured out why Nike has been able to do this and very few other people have. But it's something special. It is so hard to find a client like that, no matter where in the globe you are. So once you do find somebody like that, you want to work on it, a lot. Probably 90 percent of my work is for Nike. You get to do the great work that you've dreamed of, and most people I talk to, whatever field they are in, don?t ever get that opportunity. Of course, my portfolio is a little different because I've done some other things besides ads --I've created comic books, I have produced a music album, I have a play that, God willing, will be produced someday. So that allows me to diversify my portfolio a little.



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