~ Advertising Ace Valerie Graves shares her story ~
By Lisa Davis-Burnett
A dinner with friends at Crave Restaurant in Simpson Bay turned to a fascinating discussion of the life and lessons hard won by one of Madison Avenue’s most impressive success stories. Hold on to your hats, the life of Valerie Graves is full of twists and turns, as the frequent visitor to St. Maarten related in her recently published memoir: Pressure makes Diamonds; Becoming the Woman I pretended to be.
With a childhood in Pontiac Michigan, Valerie admits to being a “precocious child.” She was a star student, as were her siblings. Her mom raised them all with some financial support from the father, a locally well-known union steward named Spurgeon Graves. Valerie’s mother and he were divorced about the time that Valerie was born, and the man rarely made personal contact with the children. To Valerie, he was mostly just a name on a cheque, but, “But my mom,” she says, “was everything to me.”
The family was firmly anchored in the big Baptist Church in town, and Valerie got a lot of attention there, giving speeches and doing whatever she could do to be a part of the many activities. “When I was very young, even at 7 years old, I knew I was going to Harvard. And so did everyone else.”
By the time Valerie was in eighth grade, her mother remarried a man she had dated for three years. Her mother’s marriage precipitated tumultuous changes in Graves’ life, especially with regard to her two new siblings, who, if the Graves’ kids were over-achievers, were the opposite. “It was kind of an explosion. There was so much turmoil, so much conflict, and none of the kids liked each other that much. I think everybody thought I would be ok, and I was…for a while.”
One strong thread that has run through Valerie’s adult life is her best friend from those days. “But she was two years older. I was 14 and I was hanging out with her and her friends who were 16. And these girls were dating boys who were two years older than them.” By 15 Valerie had fallen deeply and completely in love with an older boy, a 20 year-old, and he reflected that love back at her for a time. Within a few months, however, he had met a girl who was 19 and he broke her heart. Valerie was devastated. The ricochet effect of that heartbreak found her rebounding into a couple of fairly meaningless encounters, and at age 15, Valerie found herself pregnant.
She felt as if it was the end of the world and yet refused to drop out of school. Especially in those days, the decision shocked many. But Valerie stood with her head high, and was surprised by the support she received from school friends and family members. She took the spring semester off, giving birth in April to a beautiful baby boy whom she named Brian. Because she had been ahead of her age-mates academically, Valerie was able to re-join her class the following fall and, in fact, still managed to graduate a year early!
“After high school I got a job as a ward clerk in a hospital and I kept that job the whole time I was in college. I got into a respected four-year university (Wayne State University) in 1968. I was working a full time job, taking a full load of classes, and having a toddler to take care of. After a few years of that intense struggle, I just couldn’t do it anymore.” She imagined that the university degree she was working so hard for was just a piece of paper and she suddenly realized she didn’t need it to follow her dreams; she had other options.
A small advertising agency called Our Gang gave her the opportunity to write about music. “I had discovered the whole live music bar scene, and I met a lot of musicians. It was kind of life changing for me.” There was a big outdoor theatre just outside of Pontiac, Michigan, and acts that were in between Chicago and Detroit were coming there, and she found herself writing publicity pieces for the bands. All this was happening while she was still working full time at the hospital. Something had to stop, and with the logic that only a young woman can grasp, she decided to quit both school and the hospital to pursue advertising as a career. At first, no one was interested.
One day, her mother told her she that she had read in the paper that the president of Darcy, McManus and Masius [a large mainstream advertising agency] had given a speech at the NAACP dinner and said that they wanted to hire African American people, but they couldn’t find any. “Well, I had sent them a resume and never got a reply,” she recalled, “So, I called them up, and I think they were afraid that they would get embarrassed, because their president had made this statement, so they gave me an interview. And then they gave me a shot as a junior copy writer. That was my first real job in advertising. I was like a fly in the buttermilk, a black girl in an account group of 22 white men and one Asian woman.”
From there Valerie rode a wave of advertising jobs that took her from Detroit to Boston, establishing herself as a rare black professional in a white male-dominated industry. Through these moves she relied on her parents to raise her son, and they happily did that for her. Along the way, as her career path hit an upward trajectory, she re-met a childhood friend from Pontiac, Alvin Bessent. They hit it off in no time, fell in love, got married and eventually moved to New York.
By the time she was living in New York City, she had finally become this person she had imagined all her life. “It was wonderful. It was the realization of this life, on a lot of levels. I had this fantastic husband, son in college, great apartment and my dream job. It was the mid 80’s and she was employed at The UniWorld Group, an African American-targeted agency. Her client list included some really big names – Burger King, AT&T, Bank of America, Kodak, Ford Motor Company. These companies had another agencies, like J Walter Thompson, she explained, “but they also had us, to speak to the African American market.” This was the first time she discovered that she was an expert in something, and she says, “I got to bring myself, as a woman and as an African American person to the job. There was a certain amount of pressure from our big-agency counterparts, but we were doing great work and getting recognized for it.”
“After not having been a real responsible person in my earliest jobs, I had become a vice president at my previous agency, and by the time I got to UniWorld, I was like the ‘go-to guy.’ In a small African-American-oriented advertising agency, if you were willing to do a lot, well then there was no limit. There was no glass ceiling. So I rose through the ranks from Associate Creative Director to being the Executive Creative Director. I got to do really fun work, but after ten years of that I got restless.”
But no fear, another opportunity quickly came along. She got the opportunity to work on Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign on the national ad team– a big career highlight. Another sidebar included public service work on Urban Aid, a hip hop music benefit concert about the AIDS Crisis. “After that was done, I got a call from Andre Harrell, who was the mastermind behind the Urban Aid event, and he offered me a job to be senior vice president for creative services for Motown Records. So I was like, ‘Ok!!’” She did that for two years and then accompanied her husband to a Stanford fellowship in Northern California for a year, after which she headed back to New York, UniWorld and later Vigilante/Leo Burnett Advertising. She never missed a beat, it seems.
Her successes were big ones, including national campaigns that were created for the African American market, but became signature ads for the brand. She created a coveted Times Square billboard -an industry gold standard- featuring Pepsi spokesperson Busta Rhymes for Mountain Dew. She led the creative for a 100-million-dollar Burger King media-buy that resulted in historic sales.
I asked Valerie, whose picture also ended up on the Times Square Jumbotron after she rang the opening bell at NASDAQ, “What are you most proud of in your career?” “Well, a lot of women struggle to become chief creative officer. Currently, only 11 per cent make it, and very few of those are black. I’m pretty proud to be that little girl from the projects who held that job at two different agencies. Creatively, the thing that I am most proud of is that we were part of bringing back Buick to its new life as a stylish, iconic brand.”
She continues to work -consulting to the National Basketball Association, for example- although officially retired. That is, when she and her husband Alvin are not vacationing in St. Maarten. “We’ve kind of given up the rest of the Caribbean, we just come here again and again because it’s so beautiful and never boring.”
To get the intimate details of Valerie’s rich, up-down-and-up-again life, you better get the book, Pressure Makes Diamonds; Becoming the Woman I Pretended to Be. It’s available on Amazon, and possibly on island soon.