Message from Montie

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African-American visibility in advertising, Chicago's Commonground businessowners discuss marketing

Message from Montie

Shamontiel is the author of two novels: "Change for a Twenty" and "Round Trip." Check her out at

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Ahmad Islam (left) and Sherman Wright (right) at the 40 Under 40 Honoree Reception

A commercial is a food or bathroom break for me. I usually don't pay attention to advertisements, but in the past few months I've noticed a pattern in marketing. It's not just the Walmart or McDonald's commercials. I'm seeing it in Tide, Pine Sol, Sprite, Lever 2000, Crest and the Roomplace commercials too. I'm seeing a boost in advertising visibility with African-American families, especially African-American fathers. Recently I saw an entertaining ad about relationships on the #65 bus after I left an appointment in the Chicago loop. I thought the ad was amusing and refreshing to see such a common moment in a relationship.



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Photo by Shamontiel


I wonder if advertising agencies are starting to get the hint about diversity in marketing or did President Barack Obama's family have something to do with the diversity, but either way I love it. It's nice to see multiculturalism on camera. And this year is also an important year for African-Americans in the marketing industry, including Chicago's own Commonground, owned by Sherman Wright and Ahmad Islam.


This two-team, African-American owned marketing company had their success honored this year on Crain's Chicago 2009 40 Under 40 list. I knew about their products and I saw some of their work, like the Sprite Step Off commercial, but I didn't know who the brains were behind these operations. I was delighted to be introduced to the owners of Commonground this week and talk to Wright and Islam about the change in faces, the increase in diversity in the marketing industry, and how Chicago influences the advertising and marketing industry.


Neither owner is from Chicago. Sherman Wright, a Texan who has a bachelor's degree in journalism, came to Chicago from Texas A&M for a diversity program when he was 22 years old. Ahmad Islam, who holds a master's degree in sports marketing and a bachelor's degree in business psychology, came to Chicago after traveling to various cities from his home state of Ohio.


"My family is still from the Midwest," Islam said. "Chicago is probably the only city in the Midwest that I really wanted to live in. It gave me the benefits of being close to my family, being in a city that was great from a marketing and advertising standpoint, and also being able to live the city life."



"[The Partnership for Success program] was the reason why I came to Chicago, for an opportunity to be part of this program that was trying to get young African-Americans in the Chicago ad industry because they identified a void," Wright explained. "This program was designed to introduce young African-Americans or young people of color."


Although the program changed its mission, Wright interviewed with eight different agencies and got a new job in one week when he really just came out for information. Wright was hired by Upshot for seven years before venturing out on his own with his business partner and Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity brother, Islam. Both men knew there was a void in the marketing industry as well as a void in advertising, and they wanted to change that with Commonground.


"I think that in order to truly reflect the population, we're seeing marketers and advertisers broaden their horizons," Wright said. "I have seen a trend in increasing the diverse representation of people of color compared to years in the past. I think that what's happening is there's a lot of products and categories that these people of color are influencing or provide a great scale of growth for these brands so they have no other choice but to engage them."


And Commonground has created diversity using these engaging tactics. They've worked with Sprite, Coke, MGD, Bacardi Ltd., Nike Inc., American Family Insurance, MillerCoors, General Mills and Alberto Culver.


When I was invited to a De La Soul event in downtown Chicago earlier this year where the hip hop group performed, I was thinking, "When in the world did Sprite start intermingling with hip hop?"



Shamontiel with Slick Rick at the Victor Hotel

I also saw Sprite's presence while working at the Chicago Defender newspaper during the "Legend's Ball," where I met Slick Rick and Biz Markie and saw them perform. Although I hadn't drank pop in about 13 years, curiosity got the better of me, and I tried Sprite Green and liked it. But more importantly, I liked how Sprite was intermingling three very important topics to me to sell a product--hip hop, diversity and African-American history. Even though I still don't drink pop, I'd be more likely to buy Sprite Green because of the promotions and sponsorships I've seen them get involved in lately. Actually any product that paints African-Americans in a positive light in ads is going to get and keep my attention.


So what's next for Commonground in the multicultural industry they take such pride in?


"[Commonground] wants to continue to build our reputation as an agency that is smart, that is innovative, that delivers programs to our clients that not only push the envelope from a consumer standpoint but ultimately also delivers business results," Islam said. "Having been in business for going on six years, we're still relatively young as an agency. We want to continue to build on the success that we've had in the first six years...and have fun. I love what I do."



For more information on Sherman Wright and Ahmad Islam's background and their views on social networking and marketing, click the Chicago Culture and Events Examiner's Q&A interview, the AC interview "Crain's Chicago Marketing Honorees Include African-American Million Dollar Business Commonground" or "Photo Gallery: Commonground's 40 Under 40 Chicago Crain's List honoree reception, Chicago adventures."



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antimedia1 said:

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It is great to learn about the increase in diversity by different forms of media. To see African Americans in a positive advertising is even greater. There is still hope that our young people can see people who look like them doing positive things.

Message from Montie said:


Agreed. This is one of the many reasons I was happy to see companies like Sprite get involved in the Sprite Step off, and every time I turn on the TV I see African-Americans playing roles that were usually few and far between, one of which is my favorite TV show, "Men of a Certain Age."

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