As the creative chief of urban agencies UniWorld and Vigilante, Valerie Graves spent decades creating memorable African-American ads. Graves’ award-winning campaigns sold cars for Ford, Pontiac and Buick, soda for Pepsi and burgers for Burger King.
Campaigns created under Graves’ direction have earned her a reputation as a leading creative woman and African-American executive in the advertising industry. This has resulted in a cache of honors, from Ebony magazine naming her among “Outstanding Women in Marketing & Communications” to being honored by Advertising Age as one of the industry’s “100 Best and Brightest” and named a “Legend” by industry coalition ADCOLOR.
Graves’ career has left her with a number of personal highlights. “When UniWorld was temporarily awarded the $100 million general market assignment for Burger King, Burger King out-sold McDonald’s for the first time in many years. The Burger King Steve Harvey ads were another high point, and I absolutely loved riding through Times Square and seeing our Busta Rhymes ‘Do the Dew’ billboard for Mountain Dew towering over the crossroads of the world.
“At Vigilante, there was also a breakthrough Ludacris hip-hop campaign for Pontiac Solstice,” said Graves. “I‘m very proud of having been one of the creators of the campaign that took the ‘ick’ out of Buick.”
The “Drive Beautiful” campaign, featuring African-American designer Michael Burton, shattered research records for changing the image of a brand in the minds of Black consumers. Graves also describes being selected for the national ad team of President Bill Clinton’s first campaign as “a once in a lifetime experience.”
Other leadership roles included being tapped by Andre Harrell to be Motown Records’ senior vice president of creative services. A Detroit metro native who grew up on Motown hits, she was thrilled to develop custom CD products and marketing alliances with top brands such as Clairol, Coors and the United States Department of Health and Human Services for the legendary label. Later, as creative director of health care giant Nelson Communications, Graves created a multimedia program for World AIDS Day 1999, which featured former Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders.
Now, as president of Valerie Graves Creative, the Harlem resident focuses on cause-related ad campaigns and advising the advertising industry about diversity outreach. She works with the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, the Advertising Club of New York’s I’mPART (to “Promote, Attract, Retain and Train diverse employees in advertising”) and the Advertising Council. She was instrumental in writing the NAACP Mystic Valley Branch PSA“Statistic.” Developed with former Vigilante creative Jack McGoldrick, the attention-grabbing TV PSA looks at the positive numbers related to young African-American men and was recently featured on Huffington Post and NPR.
“It breaks my heart that so much of the imagery around our boys supports the ‘thug’ image that inundates popular culture,” she said. “When the right assignment came along, being a mother and grandmother of African-American males was absolutely central to my request that my team find a way to tell the good news story about young Black men. For me, it was personal.”
These days, for African-American ad agencies, the news is not good. In the age of the “browning” of America and “total market” advertising, the role of African-American agencies is dwindling. “Some major general market agency executives see ‘total market advertising’ as making African-American agencies unnecessary, and, let’s face it, clients can save money by dealing with a single agency, so that’s an appealing message,” said Graves. “I think African-American agencies have to boldly stake their claim as ‘best in class’ when it comes to communicating with minority audiences, and even flip the script to position themselves as most qualified to speak to the ‘total market.’”
At this time, the number of African-American professionals at general market advertising agencies is a dismal 6 percent. “First of all, it’s important to have us in general market agencies because we’re part of the general market,” explained Graves. “If there’s no African-American presence at the ad agency, the Black kid in the ad will tend to be handling a basketball. The creative team will never think that the doctor could be African-American, and major mistakes will almost certainly be made when the creatives start trying to use African-American humor.”
African-American creatives understand the nuances in Black culture. “It’s the difference between a public notice on a bulletin board and an engraved invitation sent to one’s home,” she stressed. “Advertising is about selling, and culturally relevant ads sell harder and more authentically.”
Several years ago, Graves moved from Greenwich Village to Harlem. “I have lived in neighborhoods all over Manhattan, but Harlem is the first time I’ve lived in a community. We smile and say, ‘Good morning,’ to each other, something I hadn’t even realized I missed until I moved here,” she said. “Then there’s the history. I live up the block from the home of Langston Hughes, around the corner from the boyhood home of James Baldwin and the site of the most famous jazz photograph ever taken. Harlem is so rich in culture, cuisine and fashion that’s it’s almost overwhelming.”
Recently, while walking in Harlem, Graves stopped to snap a photo of Chris Rock as he left Sylvia’s restaurant. “A small crowd began to gather, and Rock’s white handlers moved in and started guiding him to his SUV,” Graves recalled. “This brother in the crowd called out, ‘You ain’t gotta worry about Chris. Chris is one of us,’ and Chris Rock smiled. He wasn’t confused about what a rich and successful celebrity might have in common with an extremely regular brother on the corner of 126th and Malcolm X Boulevard. Neither am I,” Graves smiled.