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New York’s Supper Club is packed. The hundreds of marketers and advertisers at the African Americans in Advertising’s first annual Excellence in Advertising Awards have come out not only to praise one of their favorite sons, but also to cajole him. At this awards ceremony and roast, luminaries such as Johnny Cochran, Isaac Hayes and the Rev. Al Sharpton paid witty homage to the 68-year-old founder, chairman and CEO of the UniWorld Group Inc.-Byron Lewis. While they lovingly chide Lewis about his loquaciousness, tight-fisted business style and less-than-towering stature, no one leaves the stage without acknowledging his visionary leadership and the indelible mark he has made on the world of advertising.
“Byron always says that he’s been in the business so long that he’s been ‘Negro,’ ‘colored,’ ‘black’ and ‘African American,'” says Les Goodstein, president and COO of the New York Daily News. “Well now he’s urban.” The audience bursts into laughter, but all in attendance know that it’s no joke. With the African American market such a hot commodity these days, Lewis and UniWorld could be no other way; it was a market they had long catered to-even before it became vogue.
“It was a long time coming, but companies are finally recognizing African American culture,” notes Lewis in an interview after the roast. “This newest variation of our culture not only dominates the urban youth, but youth in general, both in the U.S. and globally.”
Whereas the general market refers to the mainstream, white population, the urban market, with its African American-influenced hip-hop youth culture, crosses all racial and ethnic lines. Though the term urban has evolved to encompass all groups, in some circles, it has largely become synonymous with black.
It’s no secret that Lewis is a trailblazer. He always wanted to be a writer, but after graduating from Long Island University with a B.A. in journalism, he found the field-much like general-market advertising-difficult to break into. So he did advertising and promotions for African American newspapers in Harlem. Over the years he developed a variety of targeted publishing, promotion, broadcast production and entertainment projects. In 1969, while corporate America ignored the African American market, the former social worker and events promoter turned advertising maverick not only convinced companies to advertise, but helped create programs to accommodate their ads: the 1974 black radio soap opera, Sounds of the City, and the television news program, America’s Black Forum, with which he became associated in 1985. Now, more than 30 years after the Queens, New York, native opened the doors to UniWorld’s three-room office off New York’s Times Square with $250,000 in seed money from two venture capital groups, the agency has grown tremendously.
Today, UniWorld boasts 140 employees, most of whom occupy the headquarters’ three floors high above New York’s trendy, fashion-forward Soho district. With billings of $230 million, 1999 was a banner year for the agency with an almost 50% increase over 1998 billings of $160 million. Over the past five years, UniWorld’s average rate of increase has been more