Remembering Black Advertising Pioneer Herb Kemp

Herb Kemp
Herb Kemp

Herb Kemp, a pioneer in advertising to black consumers, died this week at age 69. His death, which stunned executives throughout black advertising agencies, was first reported in Target Market News.


The Buffalo, N.Y., native spent more than 40 years working for mainstream consumer-product companies and for black- and white-owned advertising agencies that sold goods and services to African-American consumers. When he retired, Kemp founded his own consultancy, What's Black About It? LLC.

Pepper Miller, the founder and president of the Hunter-Miller Group Inc., a market research and consulting firm, often collaborated with Kemp. She says he articulated the soul of black people so that others got it. "He was an ad-account guy, but I think also a frustrated creative. If someone was stuck, he could give him or her the line to get the idea across," she says.

Miller said that Kemp often saw opportunities that white firms missed. In February she quoted Kemp in an column about minority users of digital and social networking, and the disconnect between them and mainstream Web trendsetters and marketing gurus. Kemp said that the so-called gurus were unaware of how minorities used online "platforms as virtual barbershops and beauty salons," and how those were perfect settings to reach consumers.

In 1966 Kemp became the first African American to earn an MBA from the Amos Tuck School of Business Administration at Dartmouth. Before joining black-owned ad agencies, Kemp learned the consumer-product business and ad sales at top mainstream companies. He worked at Pfizer, General Foods and Chesebrough-Ponds in client-side brand management and then held senior executive posts at ad agencies J. Walter Thompson and Ogilvy & Mather.

Byron Lewis founded the advertising agency UniWorld Group in 1969, and the paths of the two men began to converge. In 1983 Burger King hired UniWorld to develop ads for the ethnic market, meaning blacks. But Burger King was anxious to have a senior director with mainstream packaged-goods experience work on its business. Lewis needed someone with an MBA. Kemp left Ogilvy, where he was a senior vice president, to become president of UniWorld. He helped grow the agency's account-management staff and the Burger King account. "We're indebted to his courage and contribution to UniWorld's future success," says Lewis.

In 1994 Kemp moved to the Chisholm Mingo Group, where he stayed for 11 years. Samuel J. Chisholm was the CEO and president of the now defunct agency, which specialized in "African-American, Hispanic and urban consumers." Chisholm, who now runs a consulting firm, remembers Kemp as an excellent strategist: "His goal was to always provide the right voice for African Americans, one that was very respectful of both the people in the ads and the clients." In the early 2000s, Kemp left Chisholm to found his own consultancy.


Miller and Kemp co-authored What's Black About It? Insights to Increase Your Share of a Changing African-American Market in 2005. On his website, Kemp said that the book distilled everything they knew about reaching the underserved $1 trillion black consumer market. He also pointed out that many mainstream goods-and-services providers still believed that showing blacks or Hispanics in general-market campaigns was sufficient to capture their attention and brand loyalty.

Miller and Kemp thought differently. Their book had a multilayered plan to build competitive advantage. The steps included spotlighting blacks as a heterogeneous, not a homogeneous, group; creating more and different types of campaigns; being aware that much of black brand building is done by word of mouth; and that while some use of general ad media worked, deliberately using black media outlets showed consumers that sellers respected and understood African Americans.


Creating memorable ads is hard, but Kemp suggested that one effective approach was to use irony. Carol H. Williams, CEO and chief creative officer at Carol H. Williams Advertising, says Kemp argued that "every day in the African-American experience is a journey and an irony in and of itself."

Frank McCoy covers business for The Root.