History of advertising: No 183: Roy Eaton's job application form

Managers at Young & Rubicam in New York were taken aback one hot July day in 1955 when Roy Eaton walked in and asked for a job as a music writer for commercials.

It wasn’t so much because of Eaton’s background as a prodigiously talented classical pianist who had appeared at Carnegie Hall and made his concert debut playing Chopin with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

It was that he was black. Since the 1920s, US agencies had been Wasp preserves where Jews seldom made it out of the creative department. As for African Americans, there were none.

The intimidating atmosphere that the first African Americans faced when they knocked on Madison Avenue’s door was well-encapsulated in a scene in Mad Men when agency boss Roger Sterling remarks to his creative chief, Don Draper, "BBDO have just employed their first negro – what do you think of that?" Draper replies, "I think I wouldn’t want to be that negro."

Eaton, however, was to triumph over seemingly impossible odds. So much so that he was cited as the US ad industry’s answer to the Brooklyn Dodgers’ Jackie Robinson, who smashed the colour bar in Major League Baseball.

It was chance that took Eaton to Y&R. Having learned the basics of copywriting in the US Armed Forces Radio Service, he wrote to a radio network asking for the title and composer of a piece he had heard. He got a reply from Y&R, the agency responsible for the piece.

Finding himself jobless in New York, he decided to try Y&R, filled in an application form and was given a cursory interview. However, he impressed Charlie Feldman, the creative director, sufficiently to become the first black creative at a major US agency.

Things you need to know

  • In his first two years at Y&R, Eaton created 75% of the music there. He worked for Benton & Bowles from 1959 to 1982, when he set up his own music company. He was inducted into the Advertising Hall of Fame in 2010.
  • Prevented from casting black people in commercials, Eaton hired black jazzmen such as Cannonball Adderley and Milt Jackson to create the music.
  • Eaton recently accused US agencies of hiring "a lot of African American diversity officers" rather than more black creatives and executives.

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