Vince Cullers Biography
Inspired by Civil Rights Movement, Founded First African-American Ad Agency
When Vince Cullers began knocking on the doors of advertising agencies in the late 1940s, he had a thick portfolio, experience as an artist, and training from the prestigious Art Institute of Chicago. He was young, eager, and talented. He was also black. "He made the rounds of the ad agencies in Chicago, and what he ran into was that they did not hire blacks," his wife Marian Cullers told Essence. By 1956 Cullers had had enough and launched his own firm. Vince Cullers Advertising, Inc. was the first black-owned advertising agency in the United States and the first to actively target the African-American market. It changed the face of advertising. "There were rarely any blacks to be seen in advertisements up until that point," Tom Burrell, CEO of Burrell Communications Group, told the Chicago Tribune. "He established the template for targeted marketing in this country."
Inspired by Civil Rights Movement
Vincent T. Cullers was born around 1924 in Chicago to Samuel and Letitia Cullers. His mother was a deeply spiritual woman who inspired in Cullers a commitment to leaving the world better than he found it. After graduating from DuSable High School, where he played football and ran track, Cullers studied art at the Art Institute of Chicago. When the United States entered World War II, Cullers signed on with the Marines and became a combat artist in the South Pacific. While in the service another soldier showed Cullers a photo of his cousin, Marian Barnett, of Champaign, Illinois. Cullers was smitten. Upon returning to Illinois he sought Marian out, wooed her, and eventually married her. They had two sons, Vincent Jr. and Jeffery.
By the time Cullers married Marian, he had developed an impressive portfolio. He started sending it to various advertising agencies in Chicago and New York, hoping to get work as an illustrator. The agencies would see it and offer him a position but "when he showed up and the interviewer saw the color of his skin, he suddenly didn't have a job," Cullers' son Jeffery recounted to the Chicago Sun-Times. "In those days, no African Americans were working in advertising," Burrell told the Chicago Tribune. "They not only couldn't get in the door, they didn't go beyond the lobby." Cullers resorted to freelance art work. Finally, in 1953 he landed a position as a promotional art director for Ebony magazine.
At the time, the Civil Rights Movement was gaining momentum. In 1954 the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. the Board of Education that racially segregated education was unconstitutional. A year later Rosa Parks's refusal to give up her bus seat prompted the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. rose to national prominence. Black students faced furious mobs to attend school. Others endured insults and threats to take seats at whites-only lunch counters. As the fight for civil rights was slowly, painfully won, an image of Black Power rose up.
Founded First African-American
In Chicago, Cullers saw all of this and reacted in the way he could best—through advertising. In 1956 he founded Vince Cullers Advertising. He would handle the art, his wife Marian the administration. His goal was two-fold: to open up the advertising world to African Americans, and to change the way African Americans were targeted in ads.
"For years, our agency actually functioned as a training ground for many young students seeking their first exposure to the ad industry," Cullers told The Black Collegian. African Americans were new to the industry and Cullers had no choice but to be both employer and mentor. In doing so, he not only brought black talent to advertising, but he also inspired other black agencies to form and flourish. "It's my sense from looking at the figures that one of the things that [Cullers] did was spark the formation of other African-American agencies, some of which have gone on to become far bigger than his ever was," an editor at Advertising Age told Black Enterprise.
With his agency, Cullers also changed the way advertising was targeted to blacks. "What was fantastic about what Vince did was that he approached corporate America with the idea that rather than integrating black people into a white concept of advertising, advertisers needed to buy into the idea of creating messages that resonated only with black people," Ken Smikle, president of Target Market News told Black Enterprise. Until that time, no agency had exclusively targeted a specific market segment. Burell told Advertising Age, "targeted marketing has found its way into the mainstream.… It all started with Vince Cullers, and we should not forget that."
Broke Color Barriers in
Cullers's billings for 1956 barely topped $10,000. His ideas, however, were breaking barriers and by 1968 his company landed its first major contract. "We were contacted by Lorillard, Inc., which makes Newport, True and Kent cigarettes," Marian told Essence. Cullers refused to create a standard advertising campaign, appealing to what he called a "black white person," as noted in Target Market News. Instead he created a campaign that featured a dashiki-clad African American. At the time, Black Power was at its apex, and blacks across the country had adopted the dashiki—a traditional African outfit—as a symbol of their unity. Johnson Products came calling next and hired Cullers to advertise Afro-Sheen, a line of black hair care products. Cullers filled the ads with attractive, proud African Americans and the tag line "Watu Wazuri," Swahili for "beautiful people." "The target audience was clearly black. But the message didn't have to be as black as Vince made it," Smikle told Black Enterprise. "It was a bold move on his part."
Business grew quickly and Cullers's client roster soon read like a Forbes who's who list—Ameritech, Amoco, Kellogg's, Pizza Hut, Sears & Roebuck. In 1973 billings had risen to $2.5 million. By 1990 that figure was $20 million. However, it was not an easy growth. "When we began, white clients were reluctant to spend money on the black market. They didn't understand it. Some didn't even believe it existed," Cullers told The Black Collegian. "We spent a lot of frustrating years knowing we had the knowledge to get a job done that others didn't even realize needed to be done." To help him get that job done, Cullers brought in his family. Wife Marian became vice president, and his sons and daughter-in-law Carmelita took key roles in the organization. They shared with Cullers the conviction that the black market held immense potential.
Meeting their objectives was not always easy for the Cullers family. "The ethnic agencies still seldom have the budgets the general market agencies receive," Cullers told The Black Collegian. Yet, with characteristic optimism he clarified, "but that doesn't mean we produce ads of lower quality. In fact, we are forced to be more innovative because we have less to work with. In the final analysis, it's not the money that produces excellent advertising for clients—it's talent." Cullers's talent earned the agency a slew of awards including two Clios, the advertising world's version of the Oscar.
Left Advertising Legacy for African
In 1997 Cullers restructured the firm, overhauling staff and management. He dubbed the refurbished agency, "the oldest, newest African-American ad agency." Nonetheless, other black agencies such as Burrell Communications and Uniworld Group dominated the market. Ironically, their success was a direct result of Cullers's vision. "Vince was one of the true pioneers because he created an advertising agency for African Americans in the mid-1960s before affirmative action," Byron Lewis, CEO of Uniworld, told Black Enterprise. "I just felt that in my own mind if Vince could do it when times were really difficult, then the opportunities for those of us who came afterward were far easier."
In 2002 Cullers retired from his namesake agency and let his son Jeffery take over. On October 4, 2003, Cullers died of congestive heart failure. He was 79. True to his lifelong commitment to help integrate advertising, his family set up a fund in his memory. The Cullers Cornerstones Foundation provides scholarships for minority advertising students. In the face of shut doors and repeated rejections, pervasive racism and skeptical clients, Cullers forged a path for African Americans in advertising, both behind the scenes and splayed out on billboards. He considered it a job well done. "It has been a long and difficult journey but if I could begin my career over again, I'd choose to become an ad man," he told The Black Collegian in 2001. "Despite the many hardships, I would do it all over again."
Advertising Age, October 13, 2003.
Black Enterprise, December 2003.
Chicago Sun-Times, October 10, 2003.
Chicago Tribune, October 10, 2003.
Essence, January 1, 1990.
Jet, October 27, 2003.
"Reflections on Success: Vincent T. Cullers," Black Collegian, www.black-collegian.com/issues/30thAnn/reflectvcullers2001-30th.shtml (October 25, 2004).
"Remembering an Advertising Pioneer," Black Enterprise, www.blackenterprise.com/ExclusivesEKOpen.asp?id=534 (October 25, 2004).
"Vince Cullers, Founder of Nation's First Black-Owned Ad Agency, Dies in Chicago," Target Market News, www.targetmarketnews.com/peoplenews.htm (October 25, 2004).
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