February 23, 2011

Feb 23 – John H. Johnson: Shining a Light on African-American Life

A young John Johnson

In a couple of weeks, I am going to be a keynote speaker at the Women in Marketing Conference, in London, on the subject of Marketing to Diverse Groups. I spent several years, in the U.S., marketing to people of color at multicultural advertising agency, UniWorld Group. Major brands such as Ford, Burger King, AT&T and Pillsbury spend millions of dollars every year targeting specific ethnic groups. It’s not that these groups do not consume the same products; but they may consume them differently, or they may read different magazines, where the ads might be seen. The African-American spending power, in the U.S. is currently estimated at $15 billion. In the UK, I am still quite perplexed as to why the same advertisers, who spend millions in the U.S., do not see the same value. The ‘Brown Pound’ is currently estimated at 280 million pounds; yet, the Black magazines and broadcast stations hardly ever receive advertising revenue from major brands.

One visionary man, who saw the value of the Black market, in the U.S., as early as 1940, was John H. Johnson, founder of Johnson Publishing Company.

Johnson Publishing Company Headquarters

John was born in 1918, the only child of a sawmill worker and a domestic maid, in Arkansas. He was the grandson of slaves, and his family was extremely poor, living in a one-room house. Sadly, John’s father was killed in a work accident when he was eight-years-old. John was fortunate enough to have a mother who believed in him and encouraged him, as well as a thirst for knowledge. So much so, that he repeated the eighth grade because his segregated school did not offer further education; and there was no high school for Black students.

After a visit to the Chicago World’s Fair, the family decided that opportunities seemed greater in the North, so he, his mother and stepfather moved to Chicago, in 1933. But, The Great Depression had its grip everywhere, so it took a long time for his parents to find ‘menial’ jobs because they were not educated. For the first two years, the family lived on welfare benefits. Meanwhile, John attended DuSable High School, where he encountered middle class Black people for the first time (classmates included future singer, Nat King Cole, future comedian, Redd Foxx and future Chicago Mayor, Harold Washington). He was often teased for his ‘raggedy clothes and country ways’. However, John did not let that deter him – excelling at school during the day and studying self-improvement books at night.  Demonstrating fantastic leadership qualities, he became President of the Student Council, and Editors of the school newspaper and class yearbook.  In 1936, John was offered a $200 tuition scholarship to the University of Chicago, but he thought he would have to decline it because he would still need money for expenses.

Because of his school achievements, John was asked to speak at a luncheon honoring high school students, which was sponsored by the Urban League. John's speech was entitled, Builders of a New World. Attending the luncheon, was the President of the African-American owned, Supreme Liberty Life Insurance Company (SLL), Harry Pace. Harry was so impressed by John, that he gave him a job, so that he could earn the expenses for university, and use the scholarship. John initially was the office boy, and within two years, was promoted to be Harry’s assistant. Part of his duties was to read periodicals and compile a monthly digest of articles, for the company’s magazine, The Guardian, which he thought the African-American customers would enjoy. It was very well-received; and at this point, John was working full-time at SLL. In 1940, John met his future wife, Eunice Walker, who was the daughter of a prominent doctor and a high school principal. Like his mother, Eunice always encouraged John’s ideas and desire to succeed.

Supreme Liberty Life Headquarters

John began to wonder if other African-Americans might enjoy reading a monthly periodical that would be like Reader’s Digest, but more tailored to ‘their world’. So he came up with the idea of Negro Digest, which covered African-American history, literature, arts and cultural issues. No one would back the venture, so John’s mother allowed him to use her furniture as collateral to secure a $500 loan to publish the first issue in November, 1942. His boss, Harry, was generous enough to allow John to write to his 20,000 African-American customers, soliciting a pre-paid subscription for $2.00. It was a hit! From that direct mail effort, John was able to raise $6,000 to publish more copies; and he ran his Negro Digest Publishing Company in a corner of attorney Earl Dickerson’s law library, in the SLL building. His wife, Eunice, helped with marketing and subscriptions. However, the local newsstands would not carry it because there was no demand for Black media. Undaunted, John got 30 of his African-American friends and work colleagues to ask for Negro Digest at all of the newsstands around Chicago. They began to carry it, and he repeated the strategy in other cities. Eventually, magazine distributor, Joseph Levy, began to help John; and within six months, circulation reached 50,000. One of the favorite features of the magazine was If I were a Negro, written by famous white people, such as Pearl Buck, Marshall Field and Orson Welles, offering possible solutions to problems, which Black people faced. When First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, wrote the column in October 1943, circulation doubled – eventually reaching over 150,000 and having its title changed to Black World.

For years, John had noticed that Black people were big readers of LIFE magazine, so he decided to launch a similar-styled magazine. His goal was to "show not only Negroes, but also White people, that Negroes got married, had beauty contests, gave parties, ran successful businesses, and did all the other normal things of life."  Eunice brainstormed the title, Ebony, and the iconic magazine was born, in November 1945.  The first 25,000 copies sold out immediately. Eventually, more serious commentary, such as The Civil Rights Movement, was added – making the magazine even more robust and coveted.  Seeing the economic potential, advertisers, such as Armour Foods, Quaker Oats and Zenith TV, were queuing up to market their products, which prompted John to produce a film in 1954, entitled, The Secret of Selling the Negro Market. The film was meant to encourage advertisers to promote their products in African-American media, and showed African-American professionals, housewives and students as participants in the American consumer society, as well as an appearance by the U.S. Secretary of Commerce. From the success of Ebony, JET magazine, a weekly news digest was born, in 1951, as well as several other publications, including Ebony Jr, in 1973.

Eunice had also created a traveling fashion show, in 1958, called Ebony Fashion Fair, which raises money for charity (it had raised $47 million for charity, so far); and is today, the largest traveling fashion show in the world, showcasing in over 200 cities. The models were having trouble finding make-up for their darker skin, so John and Eunice launched Fashion Fair Cosmetics, which is currently sold in department stores in the U.S., England, France, Africa and The Caribbean.  Johnson Publishing went on to own three radio stations, publish books such as the Ebony Cookbook and Before the Mayflower, by Lerone Bennett Jr.; and produce TV programs such as Ebony/Jet Showcase, the Ebony Music Awards and the American Black Achievement Awards. The Johnson Publishing Headquarters has been a Chicago icon (the company will be moving to new headquarters in 2012).

Early Ebony Cookbook
Today's Ebony Cookbook

In John’s 1993 autobiography, Succeeding Against the Odds, he was famously quoted as saying that his mantra had always been, “Failure is not an option.” He also said of his success, “If it could happen to a Black boy from Arkansas, it could happen to anyone.  Click here to see a very short interview on why he launched Ebony magazine.

During his lifetime, John mixed with celebrities and dignitaries, accompanied Presidents on trips abroad and was named as special U.S. Ambassadors, in the 1960s. He has received many awards, such as the Presidential Medal of Freedom, from President Bill Clinton, and the Wall Street Journal Dow Jones Entrepreneurial Excellence Award. John also sat on several Boards, including Supreme Liberty Life – where he had been an office boy – and the Chrysler Corporation. He became the first African-American to be inducted into the Arkansas Business Hall of Fame, in 2001 and was named to the Forbes 400.

John with actor, Bill Cosby and Reverend Jesse Jackson

In 2002, his daughter, Linda, took over the reigns; and she is now Chairman; and former Obama White House Social Secretary, Desiree Rogers, became Chief Executive, in November 2010. Today, Ebony magazine has a circulation of almost 2 million and Johnson Publishing has offices in New York, Washington DC, London and Paris, employing 2,600 people, and enjoying sales of over $388 million. I’m not sure I have ever been to the home of an African-American, where there isn’t at least one copy of Ebony or JET magazine, somewhere on a coffee table or bookshelf.

John, Eunice and Linda
Linda Johnson Rice, with Desiree Rogers and Macy's CEO
February 2011 of Ebony
A February issue of JET

John Johnson died in 2005 (his wife, Eunice passed away last year), at the age of 89, having left behind an unrivalled legacy for African-Americans who are in the media, and who consume the media. We are all so fortunate that he had a vision and believed in his people so much, that he wanted to shine a light on African-Americans to the whole world. Click here to see a brief slideshow on the Johnson Publishing website.

Sources: Wikipedia, Johnson Publishing Company, Maxizip, The New York Times, America.gov, Google Images, YouTube

1 comment:

  1. I'm in the process of writing my thesis on John Johnson, Eunice, and Ebony magazine and Fashion Fair. Thanks so much for posting this!