Agencies and Advertising and Marketing and Minorities and Communications

MZD Urban division gains momentum

April 9, 2007

In terms of marketing and advertising, Troy Julian Gipson estimates Indianapolis is about two years behind the times.

But as head of MZD Urban, a division of one of the city's largest advertising agencies--MZD Advertising--Gipson is ready to take the city into the future of multicultural marketing.

MZD Urban, by most accounts, is the first division within one of Indianapolis' major agencies not only directly targeting minority groups but using a host of new media to do so. It uses Internet blogs, broadband wireless, street fairs, and other special events and tactics to reach a broader audience than traditional advertising does.

"We need to become much more aggressive in this type of marketing," said Gipson, who grew up here and turns 38 in May. "Of course, we're going after African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians, women and other minorities, but we're also targeting a younger and more technically savvy audience. The younger audience happens to be multicultural; that's the tie-in." While Gipson plans to make use of technology for his clients, he said part of his strategy--such as cross promotion with local events and turning MZD interns into "street brand ambassadors"--is very much a grass-roots approach.

Gipson, who formerly headed his own marketing firm in Indianapolis and Los Angeles, Brilliant Entertainment, said there has been a learning curve during MZD Urban's first year.

"People within this agency now get it, and our clients are starting to get it," Gipson said. "For a long time, companies have taken the attitude that they're doing all right, so where's the need to change? We're showing them the need is now becoming dramatic, and they need to adopt these marketing strategies in order to survive and grow."

According to the U.S. Department of Commerce's Minority Business Development Agency, the purchasing power of the country's minority population grew 47 percent between 1990 and 1998. U.S. Census data projects that minority population growth will represent 86 percent of total population growth in the next 40 years.

MZD Urban, launched last April, is working with Indianapolis-based Citizens Health Care, Papa John's Pizza and Jive Records recording artist Trillogy, among others. Gipson said he's trying to win contracts with Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Lucas Oil, a National Basketball Association team and a bevy of other potential clients for projects this year and next.

"I think there are 20 to 30 companies here that are on the brink of that 'voila moment,' in understanding the importance of this," Gipson said. "Over the next year, I think MZD Urban could represent 15 percent of MZD's total business, and within five years, it could be 50 percent, including the technical aspects."

In 2005, MZD had approximately $14 million in capitalized billings, making it one of the 15 largest agencies in the city.

MZD Urban is floating some long overdue ideas in this market, said Bob Gustafson, Ball State University advertising professor.

"The advertising industry nationally has taken a beating with respect to progress in working on minority issues," Gustafson said. "This move is something that is good for the industry's and this city's image. It shows we have some forward-thinking people."

MZD principal Allan Zukerman said the move had more to do with smart business than image.

"We're not in politics, and we're not doing this to be politically correct," Zukerman said. "We're in business, and we're all in business to make money. All our studies have shown us that this is a strong strategic business move to grow this agency."

Some of the challenges MZD Urban faces are measuring the success of non-traditional marketing and reaching the youth audience "in a meaningful way," said Ray Begovich, who teaches advertising and marketing classes at Franklin College.

"This is a smart strategy, but they'll have to be cutting-edge to execute it successfully," Begovich said.

The success of local minority-owned Promotus Advertising, Gustafson said, might have sparked interest from MZD principals.

"Promotus has had a wide open field with [multicultural marketing] here," Gustafson said. "A lot of the old guard--and that's what you have leading the larger agencies--have had a hard time accepting changes. It's time people in this industry start thinking in non-traditional terms."

Those who don't, Gustafson said, will face extinction.

"Even nationally, most of the agencies that handle this type of multicultural advertising are small niche firms," Gustafson said. "The larger agencies that don't change directions will have problems."

Bruce Bryant, who formed Promotus in 1983, isn't completely surprised MZD has jumped into multicultural marketing.

"This is part of where the whole industry is going," said Bryant, who has done work for the Indiana Pacers, the state's anti-tobacco campaign and other high-level accounts. "If MZD can make this work, others in this market may follow."

Gipson's goals are ambitious.

Within a year, he wants MZD Urban to represent one national record label, one national movie production house, one of Indiana's largest companies, and five celebrities from the entertainment or sports worlds.

"When Allan Zukerman hired me, I told him I came to shake things up," Gipson said.

Zukerman met Gipson at an entertainment convention in 2005 and immediately knew he had a candidate to run a division "to reach other segments of the population" that he and other MZD principals had contemplated. Gipson flushed out any doubts MZD higher-ups might have had about the idea.

"T.J. had done work on a national scale with African-American and Hispanic campaigns and had a presence in Los Angeles, where MZD also has an office," Zukerman said. "He had the energy, skill set and experience we were looking for."

Gipson was an IBM sales and marketing executive until he jumped into agency and entertainment work. In 2000, Gipson formed Brilliant Entertainment, which has a presence in the Midwest and on the West Coast.

Gipson still has an ownership interest in Brilliant. When he was directly involved, it produced and promoted music and film projects, celebrity events and global online projects for several clients, including BlackPlanet.com, Black Entertainment Television, Viacom, singer P Diddy, Nintendo Games, actress Lisa Raye, Chrysler Motor Corp. and the NCAA.

In 2002, Gipson co-produced the movie "Something to Cheer About," which is about to be widely released. The documentary tells the story of Crispus Attucks High School's 1950s state basketball championships. Attucks was led by NBA great Oscar Robertson, who has done other projects with Gipson.

"T.J. brings a unique background and experience that is somewhat difficult to find in this market," Zukerman said. "That's one factor we think is going to help this initiative really take off."

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