Fallback plan: Smith attended Michigan State from 1981 to 1984. He majored in advertising but still entertained his childhood dream of becoming a professional basketball player. Michigan State has one of the nation’s most successful men’s basketball programs. “After I was cut from the Michigan State basketball team three years in a row,” Smith said, “I thought, ‘OK, I think I need to make this advertising thing happen.'”
ABCs of advertising: “I went to New York, Detroit, Chicago, anywhere I could go to get a job interview.” At Chicago’s Burrell Advertising (now Burrell Communications), one of the largest multicultural marketing firms in the world, Smith forgot the name of the person he was supposed to see. Despite the mix-up, Smith got the job. There he met a young co-worker named Lewis Williams, now Burrell’s chief creative officer, who “taught me the ABCs of advertising,” Smith said. “The main thing he taught me was huge. ‘They try to act like it’s a secret. They act like it’s rocket science. Advertising is not rocket science.’ That gave me confidence. It allowed me to feel comfortable any time I was presenting an idea.”
Becoming a mad man: The business “was intimidating because mostly they don’t like what you are presenting,” Smith said. “You go in and get to be humiliated. It’s personal. It’s mine and my team’s idea and they are just putting bullet holes in it. That is the way it is in advertising.” Smith built his name as he moved from agency to agency, including Wieden + Kennedy, where he was a writer and creative director for the Nike account; BBDO, where he was executive creative director; and TBWA\Chiat\Day’s L.A. office, where he was Gatorade’s group creative director.
Appealing to all: Having been told that his ad ideas were “not black enough” or “too black,” Smith said he liked the atmosphere at Muse Cordero Chen in the 1990s. There, he said, one “could walk down halls and hear Mandarin at one moment, Spanish the next, someone else speaking Japanese. If you are only a black agency, then your ideas are only going to come from that culture, same thing if you are at a white agency. But if you mix all of those cultures together, that’s where the most powerful ideas are going to come from.”
Diversity: Smith said he has tried to foster creative freedom in his diverse team, which draws from the worlds of sports, art and entertainment. “Find that coach who is going to give you the green light, who understands what you do, the value that you bring,” he advises.
Family affair: Smith’s wife, Smoke, works at Amusement Park Entertainment, as do their sons, Sequel, 28, and Jarrel, 27. Work is never far away, even when he and his wife manage to get away to a concert. “When I’m at the concert, it’s always, ‘Maybe I can use Lil Wayne in that,’ or some other idea. You can’t help it.”