AgenciesPeopleUWG’s Monique Nelson on owning a $16MM agency, diversity and industry predictions

Black-owned agency is the longest standing, woman-led strategic partner of the WPP network.
David ThimmeschMarch 22, 20219 min
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Many advertising agencies were taken off guard by the events following the death of George Floyd in 2020. They were forced to take a look at their hiring policies and begin addressing the way they approached diversity and inclusion.

However, one agency that’s been prepared for these challenging conversations since its founding in 1969 was UniWorld Group, better known as UWG. It is a strategic partner of the WPP network and the longest-standing, full-service, multicultural marketing and advertising agency in the United States. When Monique Nelson bought the agency from founder Byron Lewis in May of 2012, she knew she was taking ownership of an agency that was built to lead in diversity, equity and inclusion.

“We were certainly primed and prepared to answer the questions at the highest levels. We trained for this, and nobody said we would enjoy running the race we were in, just that we’d be ready for it when it started,” Nelson tells Marcom Weekly.

After working on the brand side for Motorola and International Paper, Nelson started at UWG as an account director and the head of branded entertainment and integration in 2007. After falling in love with the culture, she began having conversations with founder Byron Lewis about buying 51 percent of the agency in 2010.

Nelson always wanted to be an entrepreneur and Lewis was a tremendous inspiration to her. He showed her that pursuing the world of advertising and marketing with diversity, equity and inclusion at its core was worth the leap. She also felt a true sense of purpose knowing that advertising, more than anything else, shaped how communities were represented and ultimately treated.

“Ownership is everything,” says Nelson. “We as Black communities have been deliberately kept out of ownership and key governance positions, and ownership allows for a different type of organization to emerge with differing strategies that are steeped in the customer and consumer of the future. It is important we have an ecosystem that is designed and embraced by us, and for us, so we can fully participate in the global culture.”The whole process took about two years, but ultimately in May of 2012, she took the leap and has been chair and CEO ever since.

UWG now generates more than $16 million in revenue, according to Dun & Bradstreet estimates and the agency counts Ford, The Home Depot, Lincoln, and Johnson & Johnson among its clientele.

When Marcom Weekly asked for her industry predictions in 2021, Nelson started with her thoughts on social media and streaming services that would really be in the spotlight.

She proclaims, “this is going to be a very interesting time. I think we are politically unsettled, so one of the key areas that’s going to be important is how we unify messages at different levels.”

UWG’s chairperson and CEO expressed that social media is not a utility, even if they want to be, and that this reality means there have to be some limitations and a moral code involved.

“I think there is a lot to be said around the integrity of information and how we monitor that. It’s going to be interesting to see the social platforms in terms of how they move forward and I think it’s going to be important that they listen to the consumer and that’s it’s okay that they put a standard in place, and I think that’s becoming clearer more and more.”

She went on to say that 2020 has shown how leaders of social media platforms need to step up.

“We’ve seen how [social media] can be used for evil, and not for good, and now that we’ve seen it, they need to step in and set the standard of a social contract that needs to be upheld as a standard,” Nelson adds. She sees that need increasing, not diminishing, going forward.

“Also, streaming is here to stay. I feel like it’s death by 1,000 cuts right now and there are way too many services,” she says. “But, I do wonder if all of these individual things will maybe get back to a bundling package soon. It may just be for people over 40 who don’t want to curate their own individual content.”

When discussing diversity inclusion in the advertising world Nelson points out a shifting demographic. “I really do see inclusion as a key marker moving forward. I don’t know how you can do business anywhere, and especially right here in North America, if you don’t see that 90 percent of the growth over the next thirty years is coming from three communities: Asian American, Latin and Black.”

She doesn’t see this growing trend stopping any time soon and is completely optimistic about the future of diversity, equity and inclusion in the advertising industry.

“At the end of the day, I don’t know how you stop it! It’s just going to happen as a natural progression.”

Nelson is someone who loves to see the truth, and when she looks back at 2020 what she sees is one of those years that promised clarity, but not necessarily clarity we would like.

“I know what I need to do as an advertising professional in this world, which is to motivate you, persuade you and move you. I choose to do that with culture and truth to create connection in an authentic world that’s not necessarily for you. What I never want to do is offend, but I absolutely want to make sure that everyone who is overlooked and underserved can see themselves through these brands that they adore and champion.”

David Thimmesch

David Thimmesch is a freelance correspondent covering various feature stories for Marcom Weekly. He's the owner of David Thimmesch Creative and a former copywriter for Lands' End. He studied advertising and sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire where he served as advertising director for TV10.

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