published in Haikuniverse.com 2/29/16
“The shift from a manufacturing to a knowledge economy has lasted two decades. Now the next shift is coming: from knowledge to creativity. We no longer need to hire knowledge. It’s nearly all at our digital fingertips.” – Kaihan Krippendorf, Fast Company
* * *
I didn’t set out to wear a business suit. “Part Time. Girl Friday. Spanish helpful but not necessary.” Those were the words that led me into a world I knew nothing about: advertising. US Hispanic advertising, to be precise.
It was 1980. I was fresh out of college with a BFA in theatre, determined to support myself with the kind of part-time job that allowed for auditions and wouldn’t crush my creative spirit. In addition to light bookkeeping and other administrative responsibilities, my Girl Friday tasks would include ghost writing new business materials for a larger-than-life Cuban with a torpedo cigar protruding from his mouth and a toupé perched on his head. Even Bewitched didn’t provide that bilingual bicultural perspective.
“Rahchel,” he bellowed, “I need for dictashun for jew una carta. Escribe.”
Not even Spanglish captured his ability to mangle, manipulate, and make up words. He dictated to me in a language all his own. After a few days, I tried to quit, explaining to his gringa wife that I couldn’t continue because I couldn’t understand him.
“Give it a little more time,” she said. “You might get used to it.”
It wasn’t long before I picked up on patterns. The suffix “ation,” for example, was often a substitute for “ing.” So if he said “grabation,” I realized he meant, “recording,” since the verb “grabar” means “to record.”
“Rahchel, jew need for go to the estudio para one grabation.”
My mental conversions happened faster and faster, and soon I was tackling sixty-page presentations with complex passages about the demographics and psychographics of the US Hispanic market. His wife was right. I got the hang of it and stayed–for fourteen years. Before you could say Telemundo, I became the first employee of what turned into Madison Avenue’s largest Hispanic ad agency.
“Rahchel, we gotta makashure que el cliente tiene el entendation que el Mercado Hispano es one sleeping gigante.”
It was soon my job to help prospective clients understand the untapped potential of this sleeping giant—8 million Latinos with billions of dollars in buying power. For perspective, the US Hispanic population now exceeds 52 million with buying power upwards of 1.5 trillion.
I costumed myself in a two-piece business suit, pantyhose, and heels and presented my prose to a captive audience—CMOs, CEOs, Corporate America. Presentations let me write and act, albeit in offices and conference rooms. If I played my role just right, I could win their trust and, ultimately, their business.
That’s when the conflict began. Winning business meant taking on more work. Part time became full time, and full time became all of the time. The pause button on my acting and writing careers got hit more and more often until the dream powered down all together. I promised myself I wouldn’t stay away from my creative pursuits for long. In the meantime, I collected a steady paycheck and was surrounded by some of the brightest minds in marketing and advertising. My clients included corporate giants like Procter and Gamble and General Foods (now Kraft).
* * *
In 2013, well into my third decade as an advertising executive, a career that included fifteen years of agency ownership, I had a now-or-never moment. Awakened by creative impulses, I pulled the trigger on the low-residency MFA program at Antioch University. As my first residency began, I spotted a familiar name on the list of guest artists: Dana Gioia (pronounced Joy-ah). If you’re not familiar with Mr. Gioia, and even if you are, his bio merits review. This past December, he was named Poet Laureate of California. Author of the controversial essay, “Can Poetry Matter?”, Gioia chaired the National Endowment for the Arts from 2003 to 2009 and is considered one of the most influential voices in poetry and arts advocacy. His 2007 Stanford Commencement address was listed by NPR as one of the greatest speeches of its kind. Gioia has two degrees from Stanford and one from Harvard and is oft quoted as saying he’s “the only person, in history, who went to business school to be a poet.” In the mid-’80s, he was a rising star in the high-stakes marketing world of General Foods, and that’s where our worlds intersected. Dana Gioia was my client. I only met Gioia, the poet, years later, in a classroom in Los Angeles, just as I was taking my own creative leap of faith.
I attended Dana Gioia’s poetry workshop on The Poetic Line and listened to him read Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem, “We Real Cool” twice—once to accentuate the rhymes and once the way it was written. As he discussed strategies of syntax and stops, I could clearly see Gioia, the client, the man I knew more than two decades prior—the one who seemed different from other corporate executives even then.
When we had worked together, I was in my early twenties, he was in his thirties, and aside from a client crush sparked by his unchanged good looks and resonant voice, I was particularly enamored with his ability to simplify complex marketing ideas, communicating only what was essential. He was also one of the few clients who not only got the idea of culturally-specific marketing, but also seemed to embrace it. All too often, the average white male (or even female) marketing execs struggled with this new way of looking at the world. Nothing about Gioia was average. The son of a Mexican-American mother and an Italian-American father, Gioia was no stranger to cultural nuances, but there was more to his distinct style than that. He wasn’t as literal as many of his corporate MBA-trained colleagues, and he approached problem solving with an open mindedness and imagination that was more often associated with liberal arts types. At the time, I had no clue that he was a poet and neither did anyone else at General Foods or the Agency. Likewise, he didn’t know that I was an actress-writer in a costume, playing a role. There was a time when such things were better left unsaid.
…What we conceal
Is always more than what we dare confide….
From Unsaid, by Dana Gioia
One day in 1992, I was informed that Gioia had left General Foods. The news came as a surprise to everyone. He had turned the Jell-O brand around. We had even worked on Jell-O Jigglers together, a product innovation that helped grow sales. I heard something about his leaving to become a writer, but it wasn’t anything too specific. I remember thinking, That makes sense. He was sensitive and soulful in an industry where souls were sold, not protected.
In his essay, “Being Outed,” Gioia writes about the Esquire article that stripped him of his literary anonymity. “When I entered corporate life, I resolved to keep my writing secret,” writes Gioia. “There was no advantage in being known as the company poet. For nearly a decade I succeeded in keeping my double life hidden from my co-workers.”
Shame. So did I.
* * *
Trends often swing like pendulums. What once was good for you is now bad for you until it’s good all over again. Think butter or bilingualism. Such is the case with creative artists in the corporate workplace. In the ’80s and ’90s, there was no room for polymaths or multi-hyphenates; renaissance types were not held in high regard. In business, you picked a lane and stayed in it. Being part of the advertising world meant you were all-in, 24/7. There might be time for hobbies—particularly sports or immersive drinking activities like happy hours—since those could be leveraged with clients and prospects. But wasting time with “frivolous pursuits” that were not likely to turn a profit? Unheard of. Words like flaky, irresponsible, and artsy-fartsy characterized anyone who invested in their artistic dreams.
Fast forward to the 21st century. Fast Company, one of the leading publications on business innovation, has written countless articles on the Creative Economy. Not only can Creatives come out of the closet, but, also, they can ask for a raise. In a Wharton School of Business interview in which Gioia discusses the “close connection between business and poetry,” he alludes to some of the obstacles that have kept creativity and commerce apart. “I don’t know any senior executive in the United States that doesn’t lament the need for greater creativity, conceptual innovation and imagination in their corporation,” says Gioia. “But they don’t know how to foster it …”
Over the course of my career, I have witnessed uninspired hiring and training practices filter creative thinkers out or scare them away if they slip through. Not taking corporate culture seriously turned out to be my key to success, but not everyone starts out as young and clueless as I did. I had no business background, but I grasped the concepts inherent in marketing and advertising analysis. Soon, I had a business card that introduced me as a Strategist, in spite of my desire for a title like Storyteller, Struggling Artist, or even Comic Relief. I never thought about these identities as part of a whole—more complementary than conflicting—but it turns out they are. A De Gruyter Open paper, “Poetry and the World of Business—An Exploration,” cites a study examining the relationship between poetry and strategic thinking. Researcher Clare Morgan identified at least nine ways in which poetry can help business. She revealed poetry’s role in dealing with ambiguity and uncertainty and in learning to make associative connections—all important business skills. Poems encourage us “to question givens and make us more aware of complexity.” Additionally, being that poems don’t “offer closure,” and are “infinitely interpretable,” they help us “handle non-resolution,” and consider the views of others.
In her book What Poetry Brings To Business, Morgan asked Gioia, the executive, about his “success in turning Jell-O from a business with a seven million dollar loss to a twenty million dollar success.” Gioia, the poet, responded: “I looked at things differently. I made associative connections. I thought around and beyond and through the data that confronted me.” In the business world, my mind worked well because my mind worked like a poet’s.
Gioia left General Foods about twenty-five years ago in order to dedicate his life to his art, and he never looked back.
Money is a kind of poetry.– Wallace Stevens
Money. You don’t know where it’s been,
but you put it where your mouth is.
And it talks.
From Money, by Dana Gioia
It has taken me a few decades to pick up where I left off after I put the arts on hold and took a left turn into advertising. I used to call those lost years procrastination. I now refer to them as a digression, if for no other reason than it’s much more literary. To that end, I am on “modernity leave,” from my suit-wearing, business-card carrying career. If there were ever a moment to be a poet or a writer or an artist of any kind in the business world, this would be it. As I experience my creative rebirth and nurture an inner child, I weigh the trade-offs of keeping a foot in each world and, every day, come closer and closer to cutting the cord.
Hey you digger
making your way through an ocean
of rock exploded, exploited.
You built the canal. Barely
got a statue to show for it.
Now it grows wider, wider still
pushing boats the size of cities
In front of a wall
of tears I stand inside of you
dry. My father did this
by hand. His sweat his blood
his liquid labor filled the path
between the seas
I know your history
I am your history
and you will never be wide enough
for all the stories to flow through.
Just how important is social advertising to running an effective multicultural campaign? We spoke to Rochelle Newman-Carrasco, the Chief Hispanic Marketing Strategist at Walton Isaacson, an agency with a long-running reputation for creating multicultural social advertising campaigns, to learn more.
Social advertising employs the use of networks in creating, targeting and delivering marketing messages. When strategizing to reach key markets within the U.S., big advertising agencies can no longer ignore the significance of Latinos, especially on social media, as they have become the group with the highest rate of early adopters” of new technology among U.S. demographics.
Some big agencies are embracing this, investing heavily in developing social advertising campaigns that connect with Latino audiences and generate long-lasting relationships with this active demographic. What’s more, they take advantage of the fact that activity on social networks allows agencies to gather important data about certain targets in order to better understand their behavior and priorities.
Rochelle Newman-Carrasco has almost 30 years in the field, developing business strategy, traditional and non-traditional campaigns and conducting research and product development for blue-chip clients. She reiterated that when it comes to building an effective social advertising campaign, “social isn’t a question of right and wrong. Everything informs you and brings you opportunities to use knowledge from real time activities to get closer to your consumer.” Social advertising gives brands a unique opportunity to engage with consumers in less traditional ways, see what works and what doesn’t, adjust strategy quickly and segment for different targets.
“What would be wrong is not getting into the marketplace because of the paralysis of perfection. Social isn’t about perfecting anything, it’s about engaging with consumers and shaping the narrative based upon what’s really being said and done—not what you think might get said and done,” Newman-Carrasco adds.
When asked about specific social advertising campaigns that stood out, Newman-Carrasco points to WI’s partnership with Lexus, through which they have “been innovating in the space for a number of years which has been invaluable in staying ahead of this ever-changing and dynamic methodology for truly targeting desirable consumers.”
An example of this is “Verses & Flow,” produced by WI and aired on TV One, which was a “spoken word and musical program supported by several social media programs” from bloggers to celebrities to live events that are documented through social media coverage before, during and after.
WI also conducted Hispanic marketing initiatives through a partnership with Pili Montilla on the production of Té Para Tres, which won an Emmy Award. This was a perfect example of making use of both traditional and non-traditional platforms in reaching key audiences: “The program itself airs on a traditional media format (aka TV), (and) the eco-system of social advertising is where the consumer engagement takes place – be it the blogosphere, live events with embedded social media journalists and opportunities for on-line consumer interaction and more.”
Why did these campaigns stand out to Newman-Carrasco? Because “they are strategically aligned with the brand’s core values as well as with the consumer’s interests.” Using a strategic foundation, social media can be used to empower the messages delivered on campaigns featured on other platforms while targeting “more precisely,” giving the minds behind the campaign “access to data that is analyzed from a behavioral standpoint, a look alike standpoint, as well as other angles of relevance to driving bottom line sales.”
To Newman-Carrasco, multicultural campaigns and social advertising go hand-in-hand. When asked when social advertising is considered an important element of a multicultural campaign, Newman-Carrasco says: “One word. Always.” Why? To Walton Isaacson, social advertising is “as valuable for branding as it is for conversion,” because social advertising “isn’t one thing. It can take the shape of brand building creative and dissemination tactics as easily as it can be specifically developed to combat competition and convert consumers.” Spoken like an advertising veteran.
Human nature is complicated. Why do we think that culture is any easier to understand? Rather than acknowledge the complexities, Corporate America wants to put the cultural conversation in a neat little package and boil it down to superficial elements such as race-based casting, language versioning, and we-are-the-world Benetton imagery that validates its notion of diversity and inclusion.
When it comes to multicultural marketing, by and large, Corporate America continues to miss the mark. At a recent conference of America’s leading advertisers, CEOs and CMOs gathered to discuss the state of multicultural marketing and to celebrate the best examples of advertising addressing consumers from communities of color, the LGBT community, the disabled community, and others whom advertising has historically marginalized or ignored. A lot of complicated and convoluted buzzwords were tossed about as these successful and educated individuals tried to figure out why they couldn’t capture and bottle authenticity when it came to really connecting with multicultural audiences — their fastest-growing opportunity for gaining market share and increasing sales.
On the second day of the conference, the luncheon entertainment featured Aida Rodriguez, a stand-up comic who took the stage and gave a master class in cultural relevance and connection. That’s not what she called it. She called it a set, as comics do. That’s also not what the audience would say they saw. They were entertained. She was a really funny comic who made them laugh from start to finish. But when all was said and done, if you step back and look at what this comic accomplished, it was exactly what these marketers have been trying to accomplish with their multicultural marketing: connection, engagement, and relevance at both a macro and a micro level, meaning that the message can be enjoyed by many, while also having a heightened impact on a desired subset of the group.
What does Aida Rodriguez know that these marketers don’t? What are the lessons that marketers can glean from smart stand-up comics?
On November 18, 1966, I got my first library card. I had just turned six. We lived on New York’s Lower East Side and our branch was Seward Park. Built in 1909, the red and grey four-story brick building stood near the intersection of East Broadway, Essex Street, and Canal. Unless it was raining or really cold, the Seward Park Library was an easy walk from our apartment on Grand Street off the F.D.R. Drive. The Children’s Library was on the second floor. My parents followed me as I ran upstairs to the librarian’s station. When I had her undivided attention, I announced, “I’m getting my own library card.” She pulled out her stampers and a red ink pad and got to work. Then it was my turn. I concentrated on writing my name in big block letters. When I finished, I held the little yellow square card flat in my hands, careful not to bend the corners or smudge the ink, the way I held my hamster babies when they were old enough to touch.
Like my first pets, the card was all mine, and it also came with responsibility. At first, I was only allowed to take out two books at a time, but, as I got a little older, the librarian trusted me with six. I agonized over which books came home and which books got left behind. How do you choose among Charlotte’s Web, Sounder, and The Phantom Tollbooth? I promised Harriet the Spy I would be back as soon as I had read and returned the others. I spent hours sitting on the floor of the Seward Park Library, or spread out at a table, oblivious to the shifts in light that came through the big picture windows as day became night. When it was time to leave, the librarian stamped cards she pulled from the pockets pasted inside of each book. I hugged the towering stack of stories to my chest as I walked carefully down the steep stone library steps and onto East Broadway. It’s likely my mother or father accompanied me, but, when it came to reading, I was in a world of my own. As much as I loved the Lower East Side, I knew nothing greater than lying in my bed, reading by flashlight, and escaping for long stretches at a time.
In the sixties, my neighborhood experienced a cultural transformation, as did the rest of the country. New York City public schools had heated debates about the pros and cons of integration and a host of related proposals, including racial balancing. Because of the Lower East Side’s ethnic diversity, integration was not an issue at P.S. 110, the elementary school my brothers and I attended. Instead, as outlined in a 1963 School Board report, “the comparative size of different minority groups” drove decisions on such things as busing and language curriculum. While going through my father’s clutter after his death, I found a file overflowing with his handwritten and typed letters on the subject, and newspaper articles with headlines like “School’s Racial Issues Called Public Matter” and “Schools In City Will Open Today Despite Boycott.” The articles, most from The New York Times, the New York World-Telegram and Sun, and The Village Voice, had been cut out and marked up. Select passages were underlined, circled, or asterisked in pen. They were often cited in his letters, serving to defend or destroy a given argument.
In a pre-Google, pre-Internet world, this type of cross-referenced critical analysis was no easy feat. The aforementioned 1963 document, formally titled “District Proposal for Integration,” laid out plans to address issues of disparity, most of which are unresolved to this day. One section stated:
The curriculum will be restudied on all levels. Greater emphasis will be placed on the job opportunities, diverse cultural groups in our city, and the role of the Negro and other immigrants in American history.
In English, there will be a new emphasis on books written by non-white authors, especially biographies and autobiographies. Books that include members of a minority in a real but favorable fashion will be selected for use.
In the reading program, as rapidly as possible, we shall develop material which is real and will therefore be of natural interest for children of various ethnic origins living in a big city.
Some Sundays, my father and I went uptown to the Donnell Library, which faced the Museum of Modern Art. For a Lower East Sider, the subway ride uptown was a special treat, but also intimidating, with a city-mouse/country-mouse feel to the experience. Things looked shinier on 53rd Street; buildings were newer and taller, streets seemed cleaner, sounds and smells were subtler, and everyone looked much more magazine-like than anyone on Grand Street. Way downtown, we were all children of immigrants, and we played a critical role in our parents’ American Dream. It didn’t look like uptown people had the same dream, or, if they did, perhaps they already lived it. The children’s section in the Donnell Library felt like a supermarket, its shelves filled with a wide selection of everything. In comparison, Seward Park seemed more like a bodega, much smaller, a little messier, but the librarians knew you and what you liked. While I was impressed with the Donnell Library, I never felt attached. Good thing too: it was torn down to build condos. In contrast, Seward Park Library was recently granted historic landmark status and remains as vital as ever.
There was a time when the Seward Park Library boasted the highest circulation of any branch in New York City. A 1913 New York Times article painted this picture of the library card-carrying immigrant:
Centuries of famine and dearth of knowledge, and of cringing subservience to those who have had it, have taught the east side immigrant two important things about books: that what they contain can feed a starving mind and a hungering imagination with such royal richness as their lives could never afford them; and that their contents can lead him, step by step, along the journey to success and power and dominance. It is not far-fetched to say that many of the statesmen of the future are now in the making at Seward Park Library.
Here, Eastern European Jewish families like ours gained access to the kind of literature and learning tools that both kept them connected to their culture and opened them up to all-things American, including English language proficiency. With the Forward building just across the street, home to the world’s leading Yiddish newspaper, the library was often the meeting place of socialists and intellectuals, including Isaac Bashevis Singer and Leon Trotsky. The library equally committed to serving the specific needs of the Chinese and Italian communities, with Chinatown and Little Italy only a few blocks away. By the ’60s, the focus shifted to the growing number of Puerto Ricans and African Americans. No stranger to bilingualism, the library quickly added Spanish language books and services, as it had done with Yiddish years prior.
Civil rights concerns were always part of the Lower East Side ethos. In 1909, the very first meeting of the National Negro Conference, now known as the NAACP, took place only a few blocks away from the Seward Park Library itself. The library’s history includes the work of two pioneering librarians, Pure Belpré, the first Puerto Rican to work for the New York Public Libraries, and writer Nella Larson Imes, the first black woman to graduate from the NYPL’s prestigious training school. Imes later took over the 135th Street Library’s children’s division and became a significant author and major figure in the Harlem Renaissance.
Along with a fifty-year-old library card, my files and piles are filled with evidence of my literary love affair that started at a very early age. I had crayoned my name and the words Books and Love on a ragged piece of paper torn from a composition book, the black and white marbled-cover kind. Further down the page, I had pecked out a story of sorts using my father’s Underwood typewriter. My little fingers must have pushed down as hard as they could on the silver-circled keys, each with a letter on top. With each strike of a key, I triggered inky levers to rise up and move toward the roller, transporting a piece of the alphabet, punctuation, or a symbol. Sometimes the levers jammed together before they hit the paper and left their mark. My first line:
i read and i read i love to read books.
Notes from my father to my elementary school teachers support the sentiment expressed in this early work of non-fiction. On virtually every report card he signed, my father mentioned my passion. In second grade he wrote, “Rochelle reads continuously at home,” followed by, “constantly,” the next year. By fourth grade he wrote, “Rochelle is a voracious reader.”
In my 6th grade autograph book, I found another clue. Next to Favorite Author, I wrote Richard Wright. Looking back—all too aware that 1963’s goals of emphasizing diverse writers had yet to be met—I reflect on why Wright’s Native Son meant so much to me. I realize now that it spoke to a larger Lower East Side narrative about oppression, social justice, and fairness. These are the themes that so many of my favorite childhood books have in common—books as different as Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl and Dr. Seuss’ Yertle the Turtle.
Although the soundtrack to my Seward Park Library memories is all whispers and hushed tones, I have no question about its impact: the Seward Park Library, and the books I borrowed, amplified my world-view and my voice. I didn’t know it at the time, but with each book I borrowed, I kept so much, and was also entrusted with the responsibility of returning so much more.
Rochelle Newman. I’m a blogger based in Los Angeles with ties to NY's Lower East Side and Panama. Passion/Profession: a blend of US Hispanic marketing, writing, acting and stand-up.