By Ellen McGirt
February 13, 2017

As we enjoy the post-Grammy Beyonce discussions that will heat up the thinkpiece ecosystem over the next few days, I’m reminded of a story that re-affirmed for me why successful black artists are so vitally important.

A few years ago, I was visiting a much buzzed-about creative talent who worked at a global ad agency. He’d invited me in for a routine meet and greet, to talk about the future of advertising and pitch some ideas my way. We were interrupted when a panicked young associate burst in needing immediate guidance. A focus group for an upcoming body spray campaign starring a hip hop “personality” (the future of advertising suddenly seemed overpowering and musky) had gone off the rails. The “urban youth” they’d invited in to review the work were utterly uninterested in the images of sexual prowess that had been part of the campaign’s collateral materials– pictures of said personality surrounded by jewels, furs, and women draped and lounging. Instead, the teens were interested in images of business success. This came as a surprise to the all white, award-winning agency staffers. “One of them wants to get into licensing,” the young associate said, sounding alarmed.

And, the kids brought receipts. One had torn out pictures of suits and briefcases he liked from magazines. Another had sort of a hazy business plan for something involving China. And one of them brought a Fortune magazine with him. (I’m not kidding.) “What kid reads Fortune?” she asked, mentally updating her resume.

I was not allowed to observe the now fascinating-sounding focus group, though Lord knows I tried. (I only have permission to tell an anonymized version of this story.) But the story stuck with me for many reasons, and not just because it was hilarious. It was an important, up-close reminder that white marketers get audiences of color wrong all the time and that those mistakes have real consequences for entire demographics. But just as importantly, it became clear to me that black artists—think Jay Z and Sean Combs, back then—had offered a workable blueprint for black, male business success to younger men looking up the ladder that other people had failed to provide.

That Beyonce has emerged as a mature, artistic force is inspiring and important. But the emergence of Beyonce, CEO, a multi-faceted leader and investor, has a chance to be equally as significant. She even seems to be able to share power with her husband, a mogul who comfortably sits in her audience holding their child while she works. These are optics we don’t get to see very often. She’s not a businesswoman, she’s a business, woman.

I’d like to believe that there’s an “urban girl” out there absorbing these messages and working on her licensing portfolio right now. If so, then Beyonce will have done her job. What’s ours?

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