'I was not marching in the street, but I was marching in the business.'
Ron Sampson’s story reads like a real-life episode of “Mad Men.”
In the 1950s and 1960s Sampson worked at advertising agencies that marketed all sorts of products, from fast food to cars. But Sampson is black and the agencies where he worked early in his career were almost all-white.
“My mindset was to be professional but not give up my blackness,” Sampson says in this week’s StoryCorps. “I was not marching in the street, but I was marching in the business.”
In December, Ron Sampson, 81, sat down with his son, Dave, 52, to talk about his career, and how the advertising industry has changed with respect to African-Americans.
Ron started his career at the same time the Civil Rights Movement was beginning, and he felt that many white executives were interested in understanding it better. “Even if they wouldn’t make a sale with me, they wanted to hear it. So I became a conduit for them to learn what black folks were about.”
Ron’s son, Dave, explains that back then, in marketing to African-Americans, many companies simply replaced white faces in advertisements with black ones. “Particularly in print,” Dave says, “it was not written in a way that reflected who we were. The language was wrong, the situations were wrong. There was not much of a connection.”
Ron says that when he started working at one agency in Chicago, the only other black person at the company was the shoeshine man. Yet Ron felt compelled to be in the agency world, “to point out these things that people had no sensitivity to,” Dave says.
In 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed. Ron remembers the day vividly.
“The city went up in flames on the West Side,” Ron says, “and people ran like scared chickens out of the downtown area here in Chicago. I looked around and the whole agency was empty.” Ron was disappointed that none of his colleagues had anything to say about how their clients should respond in the wake of the incident. He wrote a memo to the head of the agency and expressed his dismay. A week later, executives started coming in to see him. One-by-one they expressed their disappointment at the behavior of the company and talked about how they would begin to see things differently.
“Everybody who is advertising a product is in it to make money,” Dave says. Over time, with the help of pioneers like Ron Sampson, companies learned that African-Americans “aspire to many of the same things as white people but the language and culture to get there are different.”