The advertising business is a tough, fickle industry--especially for African-American owned agencies. But Ahmad Islam, co-founder and managing partner of full-service, award-winning marketing agency, commonground, has made it all work for him.
Islam’s firm has created award-winning marketing campaigns for such brands as MillerCoors, American Family Insurance, The Coca-Cola Company, Bacardi USA, Alberto-Culver, Nike, Wrigley, Sprite, Blackberry and Mercedes Benz. It was founded in Chicago, in 2004 by Islam and Sherman Wright with offices in Houston and Atlanta.
Islam started his career at Nike handling a variety of sales and marketing roles. Before co-founding commonground, he was vice president, account director at one of the world’s largest ad agencies, Leo Burnett, where he was responsible for the U.S. Army account. He was part of the leadership team that launched the popular Army of One campaign.
A native of Springfield, Ohio, Islam earned a bachelor's degree in business psychology from Miami University and a master’s of science degree in sports management from West Virginia University.
Besides changing the way firms look at advertising, Islam is very involved in community and social issues. He and his family are also focused on fundraising and advocating for Autism awareness. They established Gabriel’s Horn, a foundation dedicated to advocacy and awareness for minority families impacted by Autism.
Recently, TNJ.com had a chance to discuss business with Islam:
TNJ.com: What were some of your start up challenges?
Ahmad Islam: One of our biggest challenges has been managing growth. Growth can be both a blessing and a curse for a start up. For us, it was important to establish the foundation for running our business at the beginning. Putting infrastructure in place based on the company, we wanted to become the company we were during the early stages of our existence. This approach allowed us to be prepared when growth came and prevented the growth and new opportunity from overwhelming our team and company.
TNJ.com: As you expanded the business, what were some valuable lessons you learned?
AI: In our industry, relationships and consistently doing smart solid work are the keys to longevity and success. We have grown smartly by focusing on our current clients first and foremost; making sure those relationships are strong and thriving. We then went back to our original business plan and did something very simple…we stuck to it. We’ve continued to pursue the types of businesses and clients we identified when we started the agency and stayed focused on bringing our plan and vision to life. We’ve had a few instances along the way when we have veered from our plan and we’ve learned that those types of distractions are best avoided if they do not align with your plan.
TNJ.com: What makes commonground different?
AI: Our name by definition means “a foundation for mutual understanding” and that is how we go about doing what we do…finding the commonground between our clients, brands and the consumers they need to connect with. We have a very nuanced approach to creating connections driven by the fact that we are an agency who lives at the convergence of culture, creativity, technology, and content. Our approach allows us to have a different outlook on how to transform passive consumers into passionate brand advocates.
Digital is integrated into the core of all ideas and we find the most relevant way to build sustainable and transformative brand relationships that move the needle. Our success is highlighted both by our steady growth as well as the blue chip brands that have entrusted us as their business partners. These partners include The Coca Cola Company, NIKE, MillerCoors, Nissan, Verizon and Bacardi to name a few. As one of the most diverse agencies in the country, our eclectic mix of marketing professionals allows us to provide client partners with a unique lens to the world we live in and the consumers they desire to connect.
TNJ.com: What are some of the goals for commonground for this year?
AI: Our goals are simple: to continue to grow our company as a profitable enterprise, do great work, and have some fun in the process. We set out to create a place where people enjoyed coming to work and could be proud of the product we are putting out in the market while truly having an impact on the industry. We feel that we have made great strides in that direction recently.
As part of our continued growth, we recently opened an office in New York City and will be opening in Los Angeles shortly after the first of the year. One of our big goals is to continue to maintain our unique agency culture as we continue to grow and expand into other markets.
TNJ.com: What have been some of the major obstacles your business has faced during the recession?
AI: Our greatest challenge as we’ve worked our way through the recession has been finding the balance between making smart business decisions for today based on the current environment without mortgaging our future in the process. We have actually experienced growth during the recession. We attribute that to having a strong client base that continued to spend on marketing during the recession and having a strong point of difference as an agency.
TNJ.com: You’re a veteran of the advertising world. Do you see advertisers ever viewing the Black market?
AI: I feel that the way marketers view the African-American market and more importantly, the value they place on that consumer will continue to evolve. The impact of the African-American consumer and their buying power cannot be measured through simple demographic data. It is also important to understand the role African American consumers, especially millenials, play in shaping and sharing culture. Their ability to influence the affinity and purchase decisions of their Latino and White counterparts cannot be ignored.
For a brand, when it comes to millenials, if you win with African-American millenials, you will win with multicultural millenials. And if you win with multicultural millenials, you will win with mainstream millenials. African-American consumers continue to be influencers and early adopters when it comes to technology and various aspects of culture. That fact alone makes it critical for brands to continue to evolve how they think about and approach African American consumers. I’ve seen it evolve over the years and expect it to continue, but agencies have to partner with their clients to lead the conversation and understand the nuances of doing business in today’s marketplace.
TNJ.com: Why do you feel there is such a lack of ad buys in Black media?
AI: Many companies have begun to leverage general media to reach African-American consumers. They base this decision largely on analysis that shows that African Americans do often over-index when it comes to certain general market media outlets so it becomes an efficiency play from a media buying standpoint. The challenge with this approach is two-fold. One, it ignores the importance of “the message” when it comes to connecting with African-American consumers.
Reaching us is only half the battle. You must then say something that is compelling and culturally relevant to truly have an opportunity to establish an emotional connection with the consumer.
Secondly, it ignores the role that some Black media entities play as the trusted advisor and cultural conduit for the community. These are roles a general media entity cannot play with African-American consumers and an important part of truly connecting with African Americans in a sustainable and meaningful way.
TNJ.com: With African-American buying power continuing to grow, it seems an unwise business move to overlook this market. So why does it continue?
AI: At commonground, we understand—and believe that ALL brands that want to remain relevant should also understand—that it has become a business imperative to seek “common ground” with African-American audiences. When you really think about it, it’s impossible for any brand that wants to be successful to ignore the influence, impact and importance of African American consumers, and the need to tap into that culture as a part of their marketing efforts. That’s where the growth is, so that’s where the opportunity is. Multicultural consumers, especially African Americans, have tremendous influence on the masses.
While the African-American segment is the smallest in terms of population and buying power, they are in fact the most influential in terms of their propensity to create and embrace trends, brands and products that ultimately appeal to the masses. Of the three, the African-American segment is the only segment that deeply and consistently influences the other two (Hispanic and general market).
Technology and social media, in particular, have changed the influence game and further amplified the ability of multicultural consumers to impact the opinions, behaviors and buying habits of the general population. What once would take months, if not years, to move from the arbiters of urban cool to the masses, can now be accomplished in weeks, days and sometimes even hours. Brands that are true thought leaders are not only embracing the importance of making their relationship with multicultural consumers a priority, they are leveraging the impact and influence of these consumers to shape and drive their broader general market efforts.
TNJ.com: What do you enjoy the most about what you do?
AI: I truly enjoy having the ability to create things and having the opportunity to work with a great team and a number of great clients. The fact that in my industry you never really know what each day is going to bring is a huge plus for me. It’s the absence of monotony and the new challenges and opportunities that arise daily that I love the most.
TNJ.com: What would be some key advice you would give someone entering the ad world?
AI: Learn your craft and build your network. The ad world is in a very strange and exciting place right now. Between the emergence of “new media,” the shift in control of the brand/consumer dialogue driven by social media, the changing holding company landscape, shifts in what clients are asking for from agencies, and an ever diversifying workforce it is critical to stay in learning mode at all times while also finding unique ways to contribute and add value to your organization.
Know what you do well. Leverage it, and continue to add skills to your toolbox. It is the only way to stay relevant in today’s agency world. And if you don’t love what you…not every day, but most of time…you are probably in the wrong game!