Carol H. Williams: An Advertising ‘First’
By Chelsea Orcutt
Carol H. Williams has had a career full of impressive “firsts.” She was the first female and first African American Creative Director and Vice President at Leo Burnett Company, the legendary advertising agency.
For Williams, who created iconic ad campaigns such as Secret antiperspirant’s “Strong enough for a man, but made for a woman,” an unwavering focus on the multicultural perspective in advertising has been essential to her success. That vision is woven into her work at Carol H. Williams Advertising, the agency she founded in 1986. Williams is the first African American female Creative Director to be inducted into the American Advertising Federation’s Advertising Hall of Fame, an honor she received in 2017.
“I think everyone is born a possibility and, as a possibility, you yourself determine what is possible regardless of the obstacles around you,” Williams said. “I’m not saying it’s ever easy, but with courage, curiosity and celebration of one’s life, everything is achievable.”
When you look back, what are the most important qualities that you think brought you through the challenges you faced?
Life always presents a series of choices and opportunities. The universe has a way of disguising an opportunity, so that it looks like one doesn’t exist. Once you recognize the opportunity within the problem, it demands your ability to solve the problem. This can often be exhausting, but engaging in the exercise of problem-solving brings with it the confidence and ability you need in order to play and win. It is exhilarating and fires up your life. Determination, courage, resilience, and empathy are essential, as is the belief that no matter the barrier, ultimately you can learn, grow and succeed.
Where does your creativity for campaigns come from? How do you stay inspired?
When I was a kid, my father always told me that we were made in God’s image. At the time, I guess I thought that God looked like us, which was very egotistical and foolish. As I grew up, I understood what my father was talking about—that God is the great creator of the world and everything that is all around us. We live in it, we are immersed in it, we learn from it, and we repeat it daily in everything we create. My creativity comes from God’s inspiration. I stay inspired because God is always with me, so the inspiration never leaves, regardless of the earthly challenges that try to snuff it out.
What was the most significant — or hardest — lesson to learn when transitioning from a senior executive to a founder/CEO?
Business does not have a welcome mat at the front door. Running a traditional business is, at its core, a battle against creativity. It is hard, uncaring dollars and cents. There is no heart or soul in business. The requirement to make non-creative decisions has often been painful.
What does your agency bring to the marketplace that others cannot?
I compete for attention in a world of ever-expanding choices and distractions. What differentiates me is my empathy. My agency excels at encoding ideas and possibilities that are based not only on the needs of the brands who turn to us, but are built on concepts that will resonate in a meaningful way and be powerfully relevant to what people actually care about.
You have received so many accolades. When you think about your career, what are you most proud of?
What I’m most proud of is that at the beginning of my advertising journey, when everyone said it couldn’t be done, I had the courage, fortitude, and determination to stand up and move forward against all barriers and obstacles and succeed. I was hired at a prestigious advertising firm and promoted to vice president in seven years.
What more do you have to accomplish?
The narratives that matter to African Americans are about people’s lives, their opportunities for agency, and elevating their potential. The role that narratives play makes the difference. I want to be part of creating these narratives, so that I can continue making a difference.
What is it that advertisers still don’t understand about the African American consumer or the consumer of color?
Culture and ethnicity are shaping forces in our lives. Yet today, I see that persistent but utterly outdated approaches to marketing, which value efficiency over effectiveness, are on the rise. These marketing models create disconnection and, in their present form, are doomed to burn time, money, and energy for suboptimal results.
What advice would you give your 30-year-old self?
It is expensive to be black in America. Our success as individuals and families is less secure than it is for our counterparts. Our radar/sonar is more finely tuned, hypersensitized to social and cultural signals—across the universal dimensions. The stakes for our choices are usually higher.
What does the Matrix Award mean to you?
To have the honor of being recognized by one of my peers who believes my work is the best and it acts as a social force, is absolutely huge, humbling, inspirational and gratifying.
To learn more about Carol H. Williams, read her NYWICI Profile here.