The Daily Heller: Lowell Thompson’s Documentary on Chicago’s Black Ad Men and Women

Posted inThe Daily Heller

Channels Changers is a documentary that chronicles African Americans who made a significant impact on Chicago’s advertising industry, as the film’s co-creator, Lowell Thompson, says. Advertising was, as he points out in this interview and the film clip below, an entry point for creative practitioners, many of whom learned “on the street” and produced iconic commercials and campaigns for national and local brands. This is an important missing link in the history of American advertising (and myth-making).

Thompson started his creative career at Foote, Cone & Belding, Chicago, in 1968, as an art director trainee, a few months after Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered in Memphis. He spent the next 50+ years creating advertising, art, books and more.

Channels Changers is almost finished, but needs GoFundMe support to complete post-production. Here, Thompson tells us more about the project.

Is Channels Changers the first film to cover this subject matter?
I think so. I actually planned it as a book, but then I met Cotton Stevenson on Facebook. He’s a “white” retired adman who worked in some of the same agencies I did in Chicago about 10 years after I’d been there, so we’d never met. He retired, moved to San Jose, went back to school and earned a master’s degree in documentary filmmaking. He’d been watching my … er … exploits on Facebook, and when I put up some things about my memoirs, Mad Invisible Man, he called and suggested we make it a film.

Why has this been such a well-kept secret?
Vance Packard called ad folks “the hidden persuaders.” AfAm ad folks are the most hidden hidden persuaders. We’re even hidden from other hidden persuaders … unless they happened to bump into us in one of the few agencies that hired us. But to actually answer your question, I think although ads and commercials are rampant, the ad industry as a subject is inherently secret. It’s kinda like what they say about making sausage. People just want to eat the sausage, not watch it being made. Ads are even worse. People don’t go out of their way to “eat” ads. They only like some of them, at best. They don’t want to think about them, period!

About 10 years ago, Art & Copy, a documentary about some of the top ad creative people, came out. I think it was very good, but I don’t think many people saw it. The only movie I know of that was ever made about this subject was Putney Swope. It was a feature film satire directed by Robert Downey Sr. [about a white-run ad agency that by mistake elects a Black president]. I suspect part of the reasons no one has done what we’re doing is that in New York, African Americans in advertising were even more invisible than Ellison’s Invisible Man. Although AfAm Chicagoans have historically been lesser in numbers than in New York, we have almost always been a bigger portion of the whole population. That fact gave us more political, economic and cultural clout in our city.

I want to make sure we make this point in Channels Changers. The Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s was made famous because it happened in the city where American media was based. But the real renaissance had already been happening in music since Jelly Roll Morton, King Oliver and then Louis Armstrong came up from New Orleans and made the roaring ’20s roar in Al Capone’s Jazz joints on the South Side of Chicago.

The world-famous Harlem Globetrotters? Born on Chicago’s South Side in the mid-’20s. Abe Saperstein dubbed what was then the Savoy Big Five (Wendell Phillips High School students who played out of the Savoy Ballroom), “The Harlem Globetrotters.” Why? Because New York white elites and media people were going up to Harlem to slum and had made Harlem synonymous with “Black America.”

What is it about Chicago that provided opportunities that did not seem available on Madison Avenue?
Even though the Black population has dropped precipitously in Chicago (it was about 40% when Harold Washington was elected mayor in 1983) in the last decade, we still make up a little under 30%. New York’s Black population gradually moved up to 25%. I think Black Chicago also had a more cohesive culture because they came overwhelmingly from Mississippi, Georgia and Alabama. Many more in New York weren’t even born in the USA, being from the Caribbean, Haiti, Cuba, South America and many countries in Africa. That’s why the most powerful Black media names came out of Chicago: Ida B. Wells, The Chicago Defender, Johnson Publishing (which published Ebony and Jet). We’ll show how that media savvy and success led to the first successful Black-owned ad agencies.

Was there a ghettoization of Black creative directors in the industry? Did your colleagues mostly work on products aimed at Black people?
Oh, that’s an easy one. No. I didn’t work at a Black-owned agency or on a “Blacks-only” account until my last days working full time. I ended my full-time career at Burrell, as VP, associate creative director. Tom Burrell was the only person in the creative department above me. Before that I’d worked at Foote, Cone & Belding, McCAnn-Erickson, Young & Rubicam, Needham, Harper & Steers, J. Walter Thompson and Leo Burnett, never on Black accounts.

Your film also brings to light talented Black women.
Yes. I started in the business about the same time as Carol Williams, who now owns what she says is the largest independent-owned Black ad agency in the world. But there was also Barbara Proctor, who started her own agency in the early ’70s. And there were a good number of AfAm writers and some art directors like Alma Hopkins, Emma Young and others I worked with. But in New York there was Caroline Jones, who started as a secretary at a big white agency and went on to found more than one agency. The reason is the same as AfAm men.

Where did the creative workforce come from? Did it have anything to do with Chicago’s music heritage?
In my case it just came in off the street. The music heritage had more influence as suppliers, not workers in the agencies, although Barbara Proctor did work in the music business as a promoter and PR person before she got into advertising. She is said to have helped bring the Beatles to the U.S. when she worked at an AfAm-owned record company, VeeJay.

Did you learn to be an ad man in school or by working?
I tell folks I went to kindergarten at FCB and got my Ph.D. from JWT. I didn’t have a clue about advertising until I was smack-dab in the middle of it. That’s why I attribute my career to Dr. M.L. King and the Civl Rights Movement. But I would guess that most creative people of any color in the business in my day never planned to create ads and commercials for a living. They seemed to be would-be journalists, novelists, artists, actors, etc.

There are some iconic ads that sprang from Chicago. Was there much cross-pollination between there and New York?
Man, am I glad you asked that question. One of the people I’ve been trying to catch up with to interview for Channels Changers is Joey Randall. He’s a native New Yorker who came to Chi-Town in the mid ’70s, I think. He told me he actually came to Chicago because he had an idea for a Coke commercial that featured a bunch of guys doo-wopping. It became the iconic “StreetSong” spot for Coke the put Burrell on the TV advertising map. James Glover had worked at Y&R New York before he came to Needham, Harper & Steers and did the “Morning Glory” spot for McDonald’s breakfast. Harry “the legend” Webber came to Chicago for a few minutes. I ended up taking his office at Leo Burnett. Shirley Riley, who did a series of Clio award-winning spots for AT&T, came to Chicago but did not have a good time.

Ad by Lowell Thompson

How far along are you with the film? Are they other “heroes” of the industry yet to be documented?
We actually have almost all of the interviews done. Cotton is about to get on a plane to Florida this weekend to go to interview Tom Burrell and Ray Lyle (who was an art director/producer on the Uncola campaign). We’re planning to start editing next month. There are plenty of heroes and sheroes, and not just in Chicago. Byron Lewis, who started UniWorld, is still kickin’. There are some folks on the West Coast who have done some great stuff.

Graphic design was long a second cousin to advertising. Was it that way in Chicago?
Yes, as far as I know, graphic designers lived on a whole other planet. It takes a strange mentality to be an ad person, and graphic designers generally don’t make great ad folks. Neither do novelists or journalists.

What do you want the audience to take away from this film that has been lost and now found? Ha! That the whole multicolored mix of media, advertising and entertainment we live with today started—more than any other place on the planet—in Chicago.