Lowell Thompson, advertising executive, author and artist
What’s your background?
Background? What background? I got into the ad game the old- fashioned way: luck, pure luck. Just like most of the “white” folks. But seriously, the only thing I had that, in hindsight, made me a future ad man was a little talent for drawing and painting and even smaller one for writing. I’m from a poor family of 11 kids, but luckily, two parents, and spent most of my young years just barely making it in school, although I was told I had an above average IQ and read well for my age. I also liked to draw. Having 10 brothers and sisters gave me lots of folks to practice my portrait drawing on. It took me forever to finally get out of Wendell Phillips High School (on Chicago’s Southside) and only then because a few art teachers took pity on me and literally put me in a class by myself so that I could gain enough credits to graduate. I had won a scholarship to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. But I dropped out after six months because I needed to make money to help the family (and I didn’t feel particularly at home in the fine art world). After about a dozen jobs, I lucked into the ad game at age 20 (in 1968).
How did you get started in your field of expertise?
I happened to be in the right place, at the right time with a little talent. If I remember right, I got into the big-time ad biz almost exactly three months after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee on 4 April 1968. And after the nationwide riots that followed. Corporate America suddenly got interested in colored folks in anything but menial positions. I would have been lucky to have gotten a job in the mail room before that. Just a decade or so before, these giant ad agencies were still getting used to the idea of hiring Italians and Jews. I was actually working at the Chicago Tribune newspaper at the time, as an office boy in the creative services department. I’d been promised a promotion to be a keyline/pasteup artist. They had already let me draw black and white fashion drawings for their Muriel Mundy account. (I’m amazed I still remember the name. I haven’t thought about this stuff in over 45 years). Anyway, when I got knocked out of the promotion because of a merger with Chicago’s American, another Trib-owned paper, I went looking for a new job during my vacation. On the very last day, I went to the Urban League, a social service agency focusing on civil rights and helping “Negroes” get into corporate America, The guy there told me about a summer intern position at Foote, Cone & Belding Advertising agency. I didn’t really know what an ad agency did, but I went to the interview. Luckily their offices were in a sleek, Mies Van Der Rohe knockoff skyscraper right next to the classic, gothic Tribune building, so I could sneak out to an interview during my lunch break. The personnel man at FCB was a guy who made Don Draper and his boss on Mad Men look like plumbers. Slicked back silvery white hair and even whiter teeth. He was so smooth, he could sell fins to sharks. He welcomed me into his big, wood paneled corner office overlooking the Chicago River as if I was his long lost runaway slave son. After I found out exactly what FCB did, I knew I’d found a career.
What challenges did you face/overcome in getting into the industry and achieving your ambitions?
Funny thing, I don’t remember ever having any blatant, racist incidents. But by that time in the USA, “whites” up north had learned to keep their racist training in check, only bringing it out around friends and family. For about eight years in the US, being a card-carrying racist wasn’t cool. Of course, I’m sure there was talk behind the scenes, in the meetings, bars and clubs where I wasn’t invited, where they decided just how high they wanted me to go… and how close to any client they wanted me to get. I never really realised the extent of this until I was way beyond the business and started reading and thinking about the sea-change that happened in America between 1960 and 1970. But now I remember one seemingly harmless, even personally positive, incident. A very respected, award-winning veteran art director at Needham, Harper & Steers told me when we were working on a creative gang-bang, “you know Lowell, you think like a white guy” (or words to that effect). I took it as the compliment I think he meant. But looking back, it shows just how conditioned “whites” were to think of er…ummm… “colored” folks as lacking in… er… uh… cognitive skills. I was probably one of the first and few “blacks” he’d ever been in a room with who wasn’t sweeping the floor or freshening his drink.
Who and/or What are your greatest inspirations and influences?
1. My uncle Raymond, whom my mother always said was where I most likely got my artistic talent, although I don’t remember seeing anything he did. She told the often told African American story of him sending his drawings to apply for a job and being enthusiastically hired until he was stopped at the receptionist’s desk when he showed up in “black” skin.
2. My mother would also mention the only African American artist she’d heard of, E. Simms Campbell, a cartoonist extraordinaire who went to school in Chicago and whose work was appearing in Esquire, a leading men’s mag.
3. Henry Ossawa Tanner, the great African American artist.
4. Vince Cullers and Emmett McBain. They were the first two African American admen who were doing ground-breaking work in the late ‘60s, when I first got into the biz. Vince Cullers had started his agency in the mid-‘50s and by the time I heard of him, he claimed to have the oldest continuously operating African American ad agency in the USA. Emmett was an amazing art director and creative character. Together they did the first “conceptually black” ads I’d seen. They also did a poster promoting the agency that ranks with the boldest, most elegant pieces of communication art ever executed by man – in my humble opinion.
5. Georg Olden, as an example of great talent, the pitfalls of believing your own press releases and of becoming a pseudo-EurAm.
6. Harry Belafonte, the singer/actor/activist who put his money and his life where his mouth is. He shows that just because you’re personally successful, you don’t have to abandon your people or your principles.
What is your best piece of work or the project you are most proud of?
At the risk of sounding like a big-headed, pompous, self-promoting egomaniac, I think my best piece of work is me. Looking back to where I came from, I see gradually creating this character I’ve become at 67. The project of staying (relatively) sane, positive and optimistic in this insane, negative and pessimistic nation and world ain’t easy. It’s not for wimps. Although I’ve done work that has won the Clio (the “Oscar” of advertising in the USA), Cebas (the “Oscar” of “black” advertising), been featured in Print and Communications Arts and that I was pretty happy with at the time, little of my ad work for the big agencies lived up to my loftiest expectations. In fact, the stuff I like the best was almost all done for freelance, personal or not-for-profit projects where I made little or no money. The work I did for Partnership Against Racism (PAR) is an example. I created this not-for-profit in the mid 1990s to be a communications agency creating ads and commercials designed to counteract the effect of 400 years of white supremacy. Later, I was joined by Father Derek Simons, a “white”, British-born Catholic priest and we created the “Diversity is Beautiful” poster and we co-hosted a radio show titled, “The Race Question” where we argued about the issue and hosted guests. It was fun. But even more fun was when I wrote my first book, ‘“WHITE FOLKS”: Seeing America Through Black Eyes’. The title was tailor-made for advertising and controversy. My “I Love White Folks*” poster here is one of my favorite pieces. The radio spot I wrote was so hot, they refused to run it on WVON, the legendary African American-owned station. It began with a brotha shouting “White Folks for sale! White Folks for sale!”. I still don’t fully understand why they were afraid to run it it…
What would be your dream job or project?
I’m actually working my dream job right now. I’m retired from the day-to-day business, so I can spend my time, energy, talent and experience to save the world – starting right here in the USA in Chicago. In fact, I just completed one example of what I want to do on a bigger stage. I call it my AllMericans Portrait Project. I’ve attached an example of the portrait, which I began in a “pop-up” studio on a corner in Buena Park, the southern portion of the neighborhood I live in, Uptown, Chicago. My purpose is to document a neighborhood in Chicago (still considered by many to be the most segregated big city in the USA) where people of many different “races”, ethnicities, incomes, gender choices, mental and physical abilities, etc. live in relative harmony. This is just one small example of my dream job. I plan to create a communications company I’ve named Humane Communications that promotes humane ideals and values. My theme line is the kicker, “It’s like an ad agency… for the human race”. It basically takes my old Partnership Against Racism idea and expands and twists it to be a positive force for the future instead of just a corrective of the USA’s heinous racial history.
Please name some people in your field that you believe deserve credit or recognition, and why.
Vince Cullers, who started one of the first successful African American ad agencies, which was based in Chicago for about 40 years, until his death. Emmett McBain, who was one of the first art directors at a major ad agency, J. Walter Thompson, in the early 60s. By the time I got into the business, he was the head art director at Vince Cullers Advertising and helped create some of the classic ads of the day. He later co-founded Burrell-McBain (now Burrell Communications), which was for decades the largest African American-owned agency in the USA. Joey Randall, who worked in New York and Chicago and was the creator of “Street Song” the TV commercial Burrell advertising did for Coca Cola that put the agency on the creative map. Harry Webber, an art director/copywriter, and a legend in his own mind, but deservingly so. Many of his claims of creative stardom would be unbelievable if they weren’t largely backed up by fact. He worked mostly in New York in the ‘60s and ‘70s. He won many creative awards and gets credit for co-creating the “I’m Stuckon BandAids” and the “Thanks, I Needed That” campaign for Mennen in the 80s. I met him when I took his office at Leo Burnett in Chicago in 1978. Alma Hopkins was a copywriter who started in the business about the same time as I did. She worked at a few EurAm agencies before I convinced her to come to Burrell in 1979. Although I left by January 1980, she stayed, becoming senior VP and creative chief. James Glover is a copywriter who wrote and helped produce so great commercials for McDonald’s, United Airlines and other big clients. He’s still working at a creative director. Phil Gant was a copywriter who became one of the few AfrAmerican top creative executives at a major ad agency. He ran the creative department of BBDO Chicago for years.
What’s your best piece of advice for those wanting to follow in your footsteps?
1. Find out what you’re good at.
2. Decide if you want to do it for a living.
3. Develop your skill, whether you see immediate job prospects or not.
4. Find out as much as you can about the realities of the business.
5. Keep your fingers crossed. Luck is real.
What’s next for you?
My next book, “Mad Invisible Men”, then world creative domination. I have so many “save the world” projects I can’t even list them all. But one that I hope will incorporate many of them is my Humane Communications project. I bought the domain about a year ago, Humanecom.com and I think the theme line explains what I want to do pretty well, “It’s like an ad agency…for the human race”. Please stay tuned.
For more information visit madinvisiblemen.com
GLENN LIGON ‘CALL AND RESPONSE’ Camden Arts Centre until 11 January 2015. For his exhibition at Camden Arts Centre, the first in a UK public gallery for the celebrated American artist, Ligon presents a new series of large paintings based on the 1966 seminal taped-speech work, Come Out, by Minimalist composer Steve Reich. Come Out is drawn from the testimony of six black youths arrested for committing a murder during the Harlem Race Riot of 1964. Known as the ‘Harlem Six’, the case galvanised civil rights activists for a generation, bringing to attention police brutality against black citizens. Echoing Reich’s overlapping repetition of words and phrases, Ligon’s silkscreen paintings overlay the words to create slowly shifting and rhythmic effects. For more info visit the website
WANGECHI MUTU is on a formidable tear. After presentations in Durham, N.C., Brooklyn, N.Y., Miami and currently Evanston, Ill., her first U.S. survey remains underway as her second solo exhibition at Victoria Miro opens in London. Based in Brooklyn, educated in Britain and born Nairobi, Kenya, Mutu’s international pedigree is reflected in her otherworldly collage works, drawing on African mythology, colonialism, feminism and contemporary perceptions of black women and their bodies. ‘Nguva na Nyoka’ is at Victoria Miro Gallery, London until 19 December 2014. For more information visit the website
Speaking of People: Ebony, Jet and Contemporary Art explores the ways contemporary artists use Ebony and Jet as a resource and as inspiration in their practices. Published by Johnson Publishing Company for over sixty years, both magazines are cultural touchstones for many African Americans and often represent a commonality between people of diverse backgrounds. Exhibition runs til Mar 8, 2015 at Studio Museum of Harlem.
For more information visit the website.
The Martinique Jazz Festival 2014, now in it’s 20th year, features an array of jazz and world music artists from the Caribbean and around the world. For more information visit the website
If you have any forthcoming events that you would like to be considered for inclusion in this column, please do not hesitate to contact me by email at info at jon-daniel dot com.