In his new book, Black on Madison Avenue, Mark Robinson does something few other advertising autobiographies do: he takes us back to a different era and ties it to our complicated, frustrating current era. He’s the consummate advertising account executive, coming of age when big New York-based ad agencies provided extensive training to their new account executives and launched them into ever-increasing responsibilities and high-profile assignments.
From there, Robinson walks us through an amazingly successful career. Starting from his experience with the 4A’s Multicultural Advertising Intern Program (MAIP), Robinson moved on to several large NYC agencies, then gained experience with Uniworld, worked with Spike Lee to open a new agency aligned with DDB, created a multicultural holding company, spent some time on the client side and even launched his own brand of merchandise.
What struck me most about Robinson and his writing style is his formality and lack of hyperbole. He’s a buttoned-up man and it shows as he walks us through his many triumphs. And that’s also what I’d consider to be a weakness in the book, not the man: He doesn’t ever address a major failure, walk through an extensively challenging time, or provide us lessons to build on. And since many ad agency memoirs are written by creatives who don’t mind admitting their screwups, it would’ve made for a more interesting read if Robinson had shared a stumble or two. (Even getting personally sued by a famous celebrity didn’t seem to ruffle his feathers too much.)
As the title would suggest, Robinson stood out in a sea of pale faces on Madison Avenue but other than hinting at a few microaggressions, nothing seemed to stand in his way. If you’re looking for provocative “holy shit, that actually happened?” stories like the ones my friend Derek Walker mentions on social media or a no-holds-barred revelatory book like Knock the Hustle by Hadji Williams, you’re not going to find them here.
Robinson acknowledges how far the industry has to go in its need to hire, promote, and advocate for blacks and other minorities, and offers a few suggestions for improvement, but all of that comes near the end of the book. Still, Black on Madison Avenue is a great look at one man’s impressive career, as well as an important reminder to all of us that many of our industry’s most important stories remain overlooked and untold.
Special thanks to Mark for giving me a review copy.