Blackoutlets Podcast EP4: Lincoln Stephens

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From the moment one meets Lincoln Stephens it becomes immediately clear that not only is Lincoln a man with a vision for the future, but he is a man who possesses the conviction and faith to transform that vision into reality. A graduate of the University of Missouri and a veteran of the advertising and communication industry, Lincoln has dedicated his career to transforming his vision of a culturally and intellectually diverse advertising industry into a reality. A process that has taken him across the country and into the board rooms of some of the most respected brands in the world, Lincoln’s journey has resulted in the creation of a transformative  non-profit organization known as The Marcus Graham Project.

Co-founded by Lincoln and a group of like minded communication professionals in 2007, the Marcus Graham Project is a multi-functional network that looks to cultivate a new generation of diverse media and marketing leaders through mentoring, education and interdisciplinary training initiatives. Based out of Dallas, Texas and named after the fictional advertising executive played by Eddie Murphy in the 1992 film Boomerang, the Marcus Graham Project looks to not only prepare individuals from diverse backgrounds for success in advertising, but also in a manner similar to Murphy, present advertising as a viable career path to a new generation.

In episode 4 of the Blackoutlets’ Podcast, Lincoln describes his Journey into advertising, his work as an Executive Director and Co-founder of the Marcus Graham Project and he shares how faith, dedication and determination have helped lead him to a career of achievement.

Mad Black Men: A Recasting of Revisionist History

Since it first debuted in mid 2007, Mad Men has grown to become one of the most popular and decorated shows on television.  Set in 1960’s Manhattan, the series follows Don Draper, a fictional advertising executive, as he navigates the high stakes world of the Madison Avenue advertising industry. Taking place during what was a turning point for both the nation and the advertising industry, Mad Men attempts to take viewers into the world of the men whose work shaped an era of pop culture communication.

Now while Mad Men has received numerous awards for the performances of its cast and quality of its writing, it is it’s perceived authenticity that has garnered the show it’s highest praise. From the visual design of sets and the meticulous selection of the wardrobe donned by the cast, to the portrayal of such overarching themes as sexism, alcoholism and office promiscuity, Mad Men has prided itself on attention to detail. Viewed by some as the catalyst for a new wave of primetime period centric dramas (Boardwalk Empire,  for example) the show has become for many the definitive media representation for this industry during this particular period.

And that my friends is the problem. Despite what is certainly an impressive dedication to detail, Mad Men is far from definitive. Like virtually all forms of historically based media, Mad Men possesses a number of inaccuracies and omissions that both shape the show’s narrative and define the manner in which it’s audience responds. Take for example the show’s portrayal of African Americans in advertising. In the 6 seasons Mad Men has been on the air there has been a grand total of ZERO black characters with roles actually responsible for creating ADVERTISING. No creative directors, no accountants, nothing. And while the general absence of black characters in the show has been discussed at length in a variety of forums (See the Root’s Black People Counter) it is a criticism that has often been written off by the shows creators as a fact of the times. When speaking about why there are so few black characters in Mad Men, show creator Matthew Weiner simply explained it as a fact of the time opining, “There are still no black people in advertising,”.

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*Le Sigh*

If only Matthew Weiner and team paid as much attention to history as they did to wardrobe. George Olden, Roy Eaton and Caroline Robinson Jones not only represent three African American icons of Advertising, but also speak to a small but significant contingent of blacks in advertising during the 60s and beyond. Yes advertising has had well publicized issues with a lack of diversity, but to say that the 1960’s ad industry was devoid of any significant African American figures is not only inaccurate but revisionist in nature.

It is seemingly in direct response to the revisionist qualities of Mad Men that MAD Black Men was born.

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A new project by writer and designer Xavier Ruffin, Mad Black Men is a satire that looks at the 1960’s AD industry through the eyes of black advertising agency employees.  An independently funded endeavor , Ruffin looks to capture the a perspective that has been either overlooked or simply disregarded by the original Mad Men series.  While it remains to be seen what the final product of Mad Black Men will look like, its presence highlights the important role that independent content can play in countering popular yet inaccurate media narratives.

Spike Lee Does The Right Thing for Advertising

“You turn on TV today, watch films today, the diversity of this country is not reflected on our tv screen or on our movie screens because the gate keepers do not reflect the diversity of this country.” – Spike Lee,

For many years the advertising industry has struggled with the under-representation of African Americans in its workforce. In a 2009 study entitled, “Research Perspective on Race and Employment In The Advertising Industry”, the advertising industry was  shown to be woefully behind the diverse communities they serve as well as other industries of comparable size. As a result of this and other studies the advertising industry has come under increased pressure to become “more diverse”.  But what does diversity mean for an industry like advertising? Is it simply hiring more  minorities or is it something more?

At its most basic level, advertising is a conversation. A dialogue between brands and consumers, advertising is the transformative vehicle by which commercials become dramas, logos become icons and the products you never heard of, become the partners you couldn’t live without. Yet like any conversation, truly effective, advertising must speak the same language as the consumer. A balance between the artistically excessive and economically pragmatic, advertising must speak to an audience that is defined not by broad labels but by unique experiences.

Today’s global market demands advertisers possess a form of diversity of thought that is on par with the consumer’s. In an age of shrinking budgets and constant competition, diversity of thought will not only set agencies apart but also create work that brings people together. This is the type of diversity that film maker and advertising executive Spike Lee speaks of in his 2009 lecture at The One Club. More than filling quotas or  trying to pander to specific communities, Lee speaks of a diversity that respects the unique qualities of different communities while simultaneously speaking to the common themes that unite us all. This is a process that will not only require change at the ground level but also change at the executive level. So while the makeup of the advertising workforce must better reflect the minority communities they wish to serve,  we must also look for diversity at the highest levels of the institutions as well.