Advertising in Black in White

The line between a cause and a grievance is often hard to locate, and in Lowell Thompson’s case there may not be one.

Thompson’s a black advertising man. His cause is more work for blacks and other minorities at Chicago’s leading ad agencies. To that end he’s been talking for months with the Chicago Advertising Federation, and intermittently calling us to complain he’s being jerked around. “They regard me as a Malcolm X type now–even though I’ve spent 27 years in the business and never had any personality issues until now, when I started talking about an issue that’s distasteful to them,” Thompson told us.

Last September Thompson stood before the CAF board with a wonderful idea: a creative incubator furnished with the sort of state-of-the-art gear that white photographers, designers, illustrators, directors, jingle writers, and so on enjoy but a lot of minority free-lancers don’t–the reason being, says Thompson, “what we all know about bank financing of minorities.” This incubator would cost about $475,000 a year, Thompson told the board, a burden to be borne by the mainline agencies its members represent. “They looked at me like I was nuts.”

So Thompson retreated. “I said, ‘Well, the minority talent hot line is something you can do immediately that at least shows you’re interested in doing something about this issue.'” The hot line, as he describes it, would act as a clearinghouse for minority talent–as their “rep.”

“Look, I’m an art director at DDB Needham,” Thompson told us, speaking hypothetically but naming an agency where he used to work. (He’s now a free-lancer himself and has a hand in a lot of the Bulls’ advertising.) “I call the hot line. I say, ‘I’m looking for somebody who could do a great shot of a McDonald’s hamburger in a rural setting. The concept is “country fresh.”‘ And the person manning the hot line will look through the files and find three or four persons who fit that description of talent. We call back the agency or fax those files and say, ‘Here are three or four persons we believe could be right for the job.’ The guy says, ‘I like two of them. Have them bring their books [portfolios] over.'”

Thompson thinks the hot line inevitably would lead to more blacks employed in the creative departments of Chicago’s biggest agencies. By his reckoning the number of blacks there now hovers between zero and 3 percent–the exception being BBDO Chicago, where the creative director and about a tenth of his staff are black. Industry people we’ve talked to don’t dispute Thompson’s figures, and they agree–with little of his passion–that it’s a problem something should be done about. Last October Thompson’s African American Associates, which he’d just founded, and CAF announced that a “Minority Talent Hotline” was on the way, its purpose to help the agencies “identify and employ qualified minority creative talent.”

It’s still on the way, and Thompson will believe it when he sees it. He’s received $2,500 in seed money from Bayer Bess Vanderwarker, and $5,000 donations have been made by Leo Burnett Company and DDB Needham. Or have they? That’s what Adweek and Advertising Age reported this month, but Thompson’s suspicious. “In fact they gave the money to a Chicago Advertising Federation [minority] fund that may be given to the hot line. If the other agencies don’t want to support the hot line then Needham and Burnett can say, ‘Hey, we’re not going to let the money be released to the hot line, because it’ll be a waste of money.'”

Several days ago a group of local creative directors met to gauge support for the hot-line idea. (It was a meeting Thompson was not allowed to attend.) Afterward we talked with Bayer Bess’s Gary Bayer; he’s president of CAF, and his agency is the only one to come across to Thompson’s satisfaction. “The intention is that [$10,000] will definitely go to the hot line. There will be an accounting for the money, but there’s no question in my mind whatsoever it will happen and happen soon. I can understand Lowell’s anguish, because some time has gone by and he doesn’t have everything the way he wants. But there’s no question it’s going to happen. I think there’ll be a good deal more than $10,000.”

If there is a hot line, will Thompson operate it? we asked Bayer.

“Absolutely,” he said.

But Thompson suspects he could be squeezed out. “That’s one of the ploys they may try,” he said. “When I heard they gave the money to that fund I thought ‘That’s exactly what they’re doing.’ They would do that to maintain control over execution of the hot line, to set it up as a paper tiger. I hope they’re smart enough to realize that’s just going to create a bigger problem. I’m not going to go away.”

Thompson told us he’s been squeezed out before. A few years ago he went to Leo Burnett to propose an exhibit of works of top minority ad talent. The show, “New Image,” wound up being mounted in 1991 on an unused floor of the new Leo Burnett building, and Thompson considered it pretty much a flop. Few representatives of other agencies saw it, and it led to work for only 5 or 6 of the 58 exhibitors–and not much for them. “So I felt the exhibit was a sham,” said Thompson. “That was one of the reasons we started the association.”

Leo Burnett turned sponsorship of the exhibit over to CAF, which staged “New Image 2” last September at the Cultural Center. But Thompson had no role in planning this show, and in response he led a small street demonstration the day it opened. “You’re in White Hands with Leo Burnett,” said one placard. “Is the Pillsbury Doughboy a White Racist?” said another. Pillsbury is a Burnett client.

CAF’s point man in dealing with Thompson is Jack Hetherington, a Needham vice president Thompson’s known for years. But Thompson thinks Hetherington now views him as a headache and tried to palm him off on BBDO’s black creative director, Phil Gant. “Jack said, ‘Why don’t you and Phil meet and maybe work something out?’ I thought it was, ‘OK, we’ll put the problem on Phil and make it a fight between two black guys.’ So we had lunch, and it was a pretty good lunch actually.”

We asked Gant what he thinks about all this. “I think Lowell recognizes that by being as aggressive as he is it’s not exactly making him the most popular guy among the ad agencies,” he said. “But the truth of the matter is, the industry really is woefully lacking in minority representation. It’s a fact. It’s not an issue for debate.”

What about his idea they were making it “a fight between two black guys”?

Gant responded slowly and carefully. “I will say that there is to some degree an intimidation factor [on Thompson’s part]. And I think that either the CAF or Jack–or whoever–was looking to deflect some of that by bringing me into the situation. I’m not saying they were looking to make me the front man. But I made it eminently clear that whether that was the intent or not, that was not the role I was interested in taking.”

And Now, Namedropper’s Textbook

Dick Tracy’s new author isn’t as unlikely as he sounds. Besides his supercilious Tribune commentaries on America’s tumbril set, Michael Kilian writes mystery novels; by cutting back on his books he thinks he’ll find time for the strip.

Kilian succeeds another crime novelist, Max Allan Collins, who was booted off the strip by Tribune Media Services. Tribune editorial cartoonist Richard Locher draws Tracy, and he’s also done the writing since mid-March, when Collins disappeared.

Kilian shows up May 31. “One thing I want to do is have it deal quite directly with the real crime problems we’re faced with in 1993,” he told us. “My first story’s about racial and ethnic hate crimes, for example. The second one is about carjacking. But Tracy stays the same. He’s America’s greatest cop, still true to Tess Trueheart.”

A second major development out of TMS involves Michael Argirion, the syndicate editor who axed Collins. His heart bubbling with schadenfreude, Collins called the other day to inform us of a recent TMS press release that said Argirion “has been named the new co-creator of TMS’s Jumble feature” and would be turning over his other duties.

“Argirion will replace Bob Lee, the longtime Jumble writer, who has retired,” the syndicate announced. “”There are few newspaper features that have the popularity, endurance and circulation of Jumble,’ said TMS President David D. Williams. “This is a franchise feature for TMS and we’re fortunate that we can put it in Mike Argirion’s capable hands.”‘

We asked Argirion if this career move was his own decision. “It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time,” he replied crisply. “A lot of people are trying to read something into this. Maybe the simplicity of the truth is beyond many people.”

Plugged In

Responsible thinkers constantly expose themselves to diverse points of view. Take a contemporary issue one could easily be simpleminded about–legislation to give Commonwealth Edison more freedom to seize new business opportunities.

Here’s how the media spoke:

The Sun-Times, from an editorial headlined “State Should Reject New Edison Proposal”: “[Edison] can’t have it both ways. If unregulated reward in competitive markets is what the utility wants, then it should expose itself to larger amounts of competition in what currently are captive markets.”

Crain’s Chicago Business, from an editorial headlined “Why ComEd dereg bill should be rejected”: “ComEd doesn’t quite get it yet. Running a business in a competitive environment means accepting risks as well as rewards.”

And the Tribune, from an editorial headlined “Find a way to let Edison compete”: “When regulators, intervenors and utilities meet with lawmakers in Springfield this week, their goal should be to reach a compromise that protects ratepayers and lets Edison compete.”

Which of these journals do you suppose enjoys an intellectual atmosphere enriched by the presence of Com Ed’s CEO on the parent company’s board of directors?

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.