From Mad Men to Black Lives Matter, Advertising Legend Carol H. Williams
By Fern Gillespie Photos: Carol H. Williams Agency
Biscuits launched the legendary advertising career of Carol H. Williams, founder of Carol H. Williams Advertising (CHWA). In 1969, the Northwestern University grad had just begun working at the Leo Burnett Agency in her Chicago hometown when asked to brainstorm a Pillsbury ad. Her creative response, “Nothing is quite as good as biscuits in the morning, it’s Pillsbury’s best time of day,” became a hit.
Executives at Leo Burnett noticed Williams’ creativity and gave her more projects. Seizing the opportunity, she went on to create some of the most memorable advertising campaigns in history. Bakers can thank her for pioneering Pillsbury’s canned frosting campaign when the boxed version was traditional, writing “Say Hello to Poppin’ Fresh Dough” for the Pillsbury Doughboy, and creating his female counterpart, Little Poppy. Then, there’s her timeless female empowerment campaign for Secret Antiperspirant, “Strong Enough for a Man, But Made for A Woman.”
Leo Burnett, himself, took notice of Williams’ talent. “Leo was one of those people regarded as a godlike entity. He personified respect, great creativity, committed to being a lover of the win,” she recalled. “Leo encouraged you to write as you talk. He had great imagination and control of emotions. He would say: ‘If a kid can’t understand what you’re saying, then what you’re saying ain’t no good.’”
Williams worked in the era depicted in the hit television series Mad Men, when few women and fewer Blacks were in decision-making positions. Still, she was smashing barriers. Her appointment as creative director and vice president at Leo Burnett made her the first woman and the first African American to hold that position. After 13 years at Leo Burnett, she served two years as senior vice president and creative director at Foote, Cone & Belding in San Francisco.
“Quite honestly, I did not think about it as breaking the glass ceiling at the time,” she said. “Nor did I think about being the first African American female. I was honored my boss and peers thought I was worthy enough to be recognized and rewarded for my achievement.”
In 1986, she decided to launch the Carol H. Williams Agency in San Francisco’s Bay Area. “I don’t know if I really decided. Perhaps my former clients decided for me. I began contracting work at the big agencies with these former clients,” she said. “I was initially creating for a lot of new products that were going into research and some straight to market. One day a client asked me if I could do target advertising to African Americans. Of course, given I was African American and knew advertising. However, it requires a lot more than that to do target advertising. It requires brilliance, among the obvious.”
Executives at Leo Burnett noticed Williams’ creativity and gave her more projects. Seizing the opportunity, she went on to create some of the most memorable advertising campaigns in history.
Now, her multicultural agency is headquartered in Oakland with offices in Chicago and New York. Her notable ads include the Walt Disney Company’s famous “Signs” commercial in 2007, featuring a boy using sign language to communicate with his grandfather. Also, Disney’s groundbreaking “Imagination” television ad. Other CHWA’s renowned ads encompass Lactaid’s “Pass Those Cookies”; Effe Award-winning “Our Stand” television ad for Allstate Insurance television; and Procter & Gamble’s “My Black Is Beautiful,” Pantene, and CoverGirl. CHWA clients include Wells Fargo, Buick, the United States Army, Coors Brewing Co, U.S. Army, General Mills, Kraft, Gilead Sciences, HP, Marriott, Partnership for a DrugFree America, and the U.S. Census. Her work ranges from traditional ads to specialized corporate social responsibility campaigns connecting with Black consumers and influencers.
Today, the Carol H. Williams Agency is the longest-running, independent, multicultural ad agency in the country. While other major Black-owned ad agencies like Burrell and UniWorld Group have partnerships with major global advertising conglomerates, CHWA has remained independent.
Today, the Carol H. Williams Agency is the longest-running, independent, multicultural ad agency in the country. While other major Black-owned ad agencies like Burrell and UniWorld Group have partnerships with major global advertising conglomerates, CHWA has remained independent. “I was happy building Carol H. Williams Agency and enjoyed making a brand,” she said.
In recent years, Williams witnessed a decrease in the number of major Black-oriented and Black-owned agencies. Many believe it’s due to the Total Market Approach (TMA). Through TMA, major mass marketing agencies have added more people of color to the ads, but this is not reflected in hiring more Black advertising executives.
“TMA, initiated under the guise of efficiency, literally justified the shift of minority dollars back to mass market agencies,” she observed. “Yes, there has been a major increase in featuring Black actors in ads and commercials. African American roles in many of these ads and commercials are primarily presented as consumers. Black women spend a tremendous amount of dollars in the hair and beauty industry,” Williams explained. “To protect the dollars for mass marketing agencies, they would cast white and black actors to eliminate the need for an entire African American commercial. These commercials were once created by Black agencies. Mass market said that was not the reason TMA was created; however, it is the outcome TMA attained.”
Williams, who grew up on the South Side of Chicago, holds both a B.S. degree in biology and her M.A. degree in arts and sciences from Northwestern University. She is passionate about community service and has used her talent and resources to help dozens of philanthropic endeavors, including the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, the Congressional Black Caucus, NAACP, U.S. Dream Academy, National Newspaper Publishers Association, and numerous local community organizations.
Referred to as “the most recognized woman in advertising,” Williams has received numerous professional honors and community awards during her career, including becoming the first African American female creative director to be inducted into the American Advertising Federation’s Advertising Hall of Fame.
The Black Lives Matter movement has impacted CHWA, with more clients interested in corporate social responsibility campaigns directed at Black consumers. Unlike mass marketing agencies, CHWA knows how to tailor campaigns to reach the needs of Black consumers. “The insights that motivate them, the life experiences create a sense of strength, initiative, and faith that drive their motivation to the finish line of accomplishments,” she said.
Throughout her career, Williams has broken barriers as a “first” woman and “first” Black executive in the ad industry. She believes being a “first” also endows a responsibility in giving back and mentoring. “You must be committed not to be the last,” she stressed. “The first person opens the door. Your job is to help others come through it. To accomplish that we share, teach, and lead by example.”