A Stroll Down Memory Lane: A Q&A with CEO and Founder, Michelle Flowers Welch
For this year’s Black History Month, we’re taking a stroll down memory lane to highlight the history of Flowers Communications Group. Our CEO and Founder, Michelle Flowers Welch shares highlights from the origin of the agency, the landscape for multicultural communications at the time of founding, and the driving market forces to establish a specialized agency for multicultural marketing. Make sure to also check out this video created by Cafe Mocha, celebrating the work and achievements of our CEO and Founder over the years.
1. What did the industry look like for multicultural communications during the time of the founding of Flowers Communications Group?
The 1990s was a time when culture issues became more front and center in media, entertainment, and the field of marketing and public relations. Advertising pioneers like Tom Burrell, Barbara Proctor and Vince Cullers paved the way for ongoing conversations about the importance of respecting culture. I was so fortunate to be able to observe and learn from some of the best in the multicultural marketing space. Under Tom’s leadership, I helped to build Burrell Public Relations into an award-winning, multi-million-dollar enterprise to complement Burrell Advertising. Although I loved what I was doing at Burrell, I knew it was the ideal time for me to start my own agency. There was a growing demand in the marketplace for expertise in reaching multicultural consumers, and I was excited about working with brands to develop innovative, creative solutions through my own agency.
2. Where did the idea for this type of specialized agency come from?
I’d been on the corporate side and worked in government and nonprofit. But, when I walked into Golin Harris, I knew I was home. I loved the agency side, and knew one day, I would have an agency of my own. Al Golin, who really helped Ray Kroc put McDonald’s on the map, was a great mentor of mine while I was at his agency. I began to develop an interest in ethnic marketing, and that passion was later fueled by Tom Burrell of Burrell Communications. He was also a great role model who further inspired my entrepreneurial dreams. So, I really had some powerful mentors who have made a lasting impact on my life. I felt that corporate America really needed to speak to multicultural communities in a deeper, more meaningful and impactful way, so my goal was to build a great client roster with blue chip brands and corporations at my own agency.
3. How did you establish a business case for the agency?
When I started the agency, there wasn’t a true focus on integrated marketing as part of the strategy to reach African-American and Hispanic consumers. Fortunately, in today’s marketplace, the focus has now changed as companies recognize that the minority population is quickly becoming the majority. Multicultural populations are the growth engine of the future and I saw that in my time working at Golin Harris. With the creation of my own agency, I was able to guide the marketing programs that would accompany the growth of ethnic segments over the years.
4. Were most of the public relations programs established during the time FCG started focused on African American audiences? If so, why?
Shortly after I started the agency, I had a Fortune 500 cosmetic company hire us with the specific goal of increasing sales with African-American women. For us, this was easy enough, we all know how much women in our community love their cosmetics. Except, in this case the company’s marketing materials and sales brochures featured blond-haired, blue-eyed women and not a single woman of color. It took us a year to sell it in, but they eventually developed brochures and sales materials exclusively for African-American and Hispanic women and their sales skyrocketed. After that, many clients from all industries came to us for insights into both of those multicultural markets.
5. How did you market the agency for new business opportunities during the early days? Was there a learning curve for clients or did most of them understand the need for multicultural communications?
When I started FCG in 1991, I was single-mindedly focused on building a national public relations agency that could help brands communicate with multicultural consumers with the respect the community expected and deserved. Our first tagline was: “Reaching our people, respecting our roots.” I had the benefit of working alongside multicultural advertising pioneers – like my mentor Tom Burrell, Carol Williams, Barbara Proctor and others – who opened the door for African-American advertising. They fought the good fight to help brands understand the value of respectful advertising targeting African-American consumers. PR was a tougher sell. We had to show marketers the importance of strong media coverage in Essence, Ebony, BET and other targeted media. We had to show them the power of the church and faith-based marketing. And, we had to create the business case for why they should be in the community at key events. Too often, we had to sell in the rationale for collateral materials with a different look and feel than brands were used to producing.
6. What have been the biggest changes you’ve noticed in the industry from the time FCG was founded until now? Have those changes hurt or helped the goal of reaching and respecting the multicultural consumer?
When I started FCG, we fought to have a seat at the table and to have budgets that would allow us to do great work. Here we are nearly 30 years later, and getting the budgets to do the work continues to be a battle. Although multicultural consumers represent about 40 percent of the U.S. population, the multicultural spend makes up only five percent of advertising and marketing budgets, according to some recent industry data. And while we now have a seat at the table, given the explosive growth of Hispanic and Asian populations and the mainstream impact of African American consumers, multicultural agencies should actually be at the head of the table leading campaigns and securing budgets that allow us to deliver powerful results. It’s a decades-old conversation, and although some brands get it, there is still much to be done to achieve greater economic parity in multicultural marketing.