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Black Ad Agency Guru Valerie Graves’ Powerful Memoir

Ad agency guru Valerie Graves knows how “pressure makes diamonds.” In her memoir “Pressure Makes Diamonds: Becoming the Woman that I Pretended to Be,” she shows the reader every step of her journey from her teen mother experience in the projects of Pontiac, Michigan during the Motown-era to becoming a glass ceiling smashing executive in the ad agency suites of Madison Avenue.

Published by Open Lens imprint of Akashic Books, an independent publishing company, “Pressure Makes Diamonds” takes readers from the “Mad Men” era of the 1960’s to the “Golden Era of Black Advertising” during the 1990’s.

In the late 1960s, Graves used grit to balance her life as a teen mother and student. When she heard an advertising agency CEO make a speech at a NAACP event, Graves followed up to request an interview. Her talent in writing soon had her breaking barriers in major advertising agencies as one of the first black copywriters at BBDO, Kenyon & Eckhardt, and JWT. “Of course, the biggest obstacle was getting in, and although my entree had to do with being Black, most people of any race had to be intrepid or lucky to get that first advertising job,” she recalled. “Otherwise, I wouldn’t say that there were many obstacles in those early years; as a relatively junior person and usually the only Black, I wasn’t a threat to the “Mad Men.”

In “Pressure Makes Diamonds,” Graves’ personal odyssey takes her through the shifting terrain of 1960s and ’70s America on her quest to “be somebody.” The marches, riots, and demonstrations of the era are her backdrop and rock ‘n’ roll the soundtrack. By the ’80s and 90s, Graves makes her ascent to the East Coast heights of the white male–dominated advertising world. She became branded as the award-winning chief creative officer at UniWorld Group, one of America’s oldest multicultural advertising agencies. Reginald Hudlin, of the famed Hudlin Brothers, who created the Eddie Murphy Black ad agency comedy classic “Boomerang,” worked as an intern with Graves.

In 1992, Bill Clinton selects Graves to serve on the national ad team for his presidential campaign.

In the late 90s, Motown’s Andre Harrell also tapped her to be Senior Vice president of Creative for the legendary label. When she returned to advertising, Graves brought her music industry expertise.

In 2000, under Graves’ creative helm, Black Enterprise named UniWorld Group the nation’s #1 African American ad agency. The firm was headquartered in downtown Soho with $250 million in annual capitalized billings. Later Graves became creative chief at the multicultural agency Vigilante/Leo Burnett.

Advertising Age magazine named Graves one of the “100 Best and Brightest” in the industry. She was nationally recognized as the creative director of such Fortune 500 accounts as Ford, General Motors, AT&T, Burger King, General Foods, and Pepsi.

To Graves, there is a creative formula in making memorable commercials and ads directed at Black consumers. “There are certain themes and cues that tend to resonate more consistently with Black consumers. We never tire of seeing attentive, involved fathers, for example, because it goes against the prevailing perception,” explained Graves. “Depictions of success and personal style, appropriate use of celebrities, music and humor are elements that are common in advertising but especially effective in communicating with Black consumers,” she stated. “A commercial that my team created for Buick Enclave, featuring the African American lead interior designer of that vehicle, shattered the research records for changing brand perception among Black consumers.”
Some of her most high profile commercials spotlight celebrities such as Wyclef Jean in Rio for Pepsi, Busta Rhymes for Mountain Dew, Steve Harvey for Burger King and Marlon Wayans for AT&T.
“Authenticity is key. It’s important to get beyond superficial elements like slang, or a way of dressing, and know the underlying values of a culture.” In 2007, recognizing Graves’s stellar career and public service via the Advertising Council and the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, industry coalition ADCOLOR granted her the title of “Legend.”

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About the Author

New York Trend is a weekly news publication that focuses on issues and lifestyles of the African & Caribbean American communities throughout the New York metropolitan area and Nassau and Suffolk Counties of Long Island. It is a respected and well recognized news publication that has been in existence since 1989. Owner, Publisher and Executive Director, Dr. Teresa Taylor Williams has been at the helm of this award-winning publication since its inception. New York Trend continues to be the only black woman-owned, metropolitan newspaper in New York and Long island. New York Trend is the largest black-owned newspaper throughout Nassau and Suffolk counties.