How Vince Cullers built a successful advertising agency after several rejections

Stephen Nartey May 15, 2023
Vince Cullers/Photo credit: Vince Cullers Group

Like many black professionals, Vince Cullers’ struggles at the early stage of his career, were not due to a lack of talent or ability, but the case of not being favorably positioned to access opportunities presented by the system. Inspired by these rejections, Cullers set out to change the face of advertising, and laid out his plan while living in New York and Chicago – when he wanted to work as an illustrator with ad agencies.

Despite graduating from the prestigious Art Institute of Chicago, firms run by white owners refused to employ him, and agencies that offered him jobs before seeing him in person reversed their decision when they did. In the 1940s, there was no record of any African American working in an advertising firm.

With that trend, he decided to work for print media to buy time for his dreams, and took up a job with Ebony – a magazine that targeted the African American readership. Though he rose through the ranks to become the promotional art director of Ebony, he never took his mind off his ambition to work in the advertising industry.

Since the all-white firms made it clear their agencies were off-limits for black professionals, Cullers decided to establish his own advertising agency in 1956. Based on his experience, he decided his step should look at reforming how advertising firms advertised blacks for corporate America and the public.

He began by creating adverts that targeted black consumers; though the progress was slow, Cullers was later successful in persuading the large consumer advertisers that the black community was worth paying attention to. One classical experiment he put out was to feature an African American dressed in a dashiki when he was awarded a contract by Lorilard, the maker of Kent, Newport, and True cigarettes, to advertise their product in 1968.

This innovative portrayal directed at black consumers enabled Vince’s agency to prosper from 1960 to 1990, according to medium.

Born in 1924 to Samuel and Letitia Cullers, his desire to make the world a better one was a principle his mother drummed home to him. He attended the Dusable High School, where he continued to the Art Institute of Chicago. Cullers enlisted in the army during World War II, where he became a combat artist. The success of his experiments opened the floodgate for other black advertising agencies to spring up.

It motivated Byron Lewis, who established Uniworld Group, an agency that targeted the black and Latino communities. Barbara Gardner Proctor followed suit as the first black woman in setting up her own agency, in 1970, she founded Proctor & Gardner Advertising, which also focused on black consumers.

Another notable individual who ventured into this space was Thomas Burrell, a copywriter for Leo Burnett. In 1971, he also started Burrell McBain advertising. Despite retiring from the agency in 2002, it is believed that Cullers’ agency became the springboard for many African American advertising agencies.

When he passed away in 2003, his family established the Cullers Cornerstones Foundation to support students from minority communities seeking to venture into advertising.

Last Edited by:Editor Updated: June 11, 2023


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