Search This Blog

Monday, August 29, 2011

Black Biography: Byron E. Lewis

From New York Times Article:
And why are you difficult?

A. As a start-up company, I was desperate to make sure that we would be successful. I did a lot of things myself, and it’s difficult to move away from that, partly because I managed to keep the company going during some tough times.

But it is very important that we have mutual respect. It’s particularly important because UniWorld is truly diverse. Our people bring different perspectives and customs that really contribute to our understanding of what we do.

People who work here know the history of the company, and that is our culture. It’s about innovation and change. There’s no formula, but that’s what we’ve created, and there is respect for individual people and where they come from. In another sense — I’m not as interested in M.B.A.’s as I might have been. I respect people for what they bring. I’m looking for people who have common sense, common decency. But I’m primarily looking for people who have uncommon sense because that’s where genius comes from.

BIO information from

Byron Eugene Lewis, December 25, 1931, in Newark, NJ; son of Thomas Eugene Lewis and Myrtle Evelyn Allen; children: Byron Eugene Lewis, Jr.

Education: Long Island University, B.A., 1953. Attended New York University and City College of New York. Military service: U.S. Army, 1953-55.

Memberships: Boards of: American Institute for Public Service; Phoenix House Foundation; New York City Sports Commission; Metro Board of Governors for the U.S. Olympic Committee.


Cofounded Urbanite Magazine, 1961; Amalgamated Publications, assistant advertising manager, 1963-64; Tuesday Magazine, vice president and advertising director, 1964-68; founded UniWorld Group, Inc., 1968; served as executive producer for nationally syndicated black radio dramatic serial, Sounds of the City, 1974-75; created This Far by Faith (television series), 1977; Black Forum (television show), executive producer, 1989; produced annual Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame television special.

Life's Work

In an industry long closed to African Americans, Byron Lewis has made his mark in advertising with UniWorld Group, Inc., the agency he created in 1969. Lewis carved out a major niche in his field by focusing on advertising for ethnic markets, and he eventually acquired business for general markets as well. His key clients over the years have included AT&T, Avon, Bacardi, Burger King, Colgate- Palmolive, Coors, Eastman Kodak, Ford, Gatorade, General Foods, Mars, Pillsbury, and Walt Disney.

Under Lewis's leadership, UniWorld has won more than 100 advertising awards. During his tenure he has established a reputation for being very involved in all aspects of the advertising business, and for continually laying the groundwork for increasing his client base. As Black Enterprise said in 1995, "Lewis maintains vigilant control over his domain." By that time UniWorld was employing over 100 people and was operating out of a three-floor office in the trendy SoHo district in New York City.

Born in Newark, New Jersey, Byron Lewis grew up in Queens, New York. After graduating from Long Island University in 1953, he began his career as a social worker. From there he went on to work with African American newspapers in Harlem, New York. In 1961 he co-founded Urbanite Magazine, a national black literary magazine, and later served as the advertising director for Tuesday Magazine. When Lewis sought a job in the advertising profession in the 1960s, he ran into numerous roadblocks in the predominantly white industry. Numerous interviews did not land him an entry-level position with any mainstream advertising agency or media company.

Lewis solved his employment problem in advertising by creating his own agency in 1969, starting out with $250,000 provided by two venture capital groups. Called UniWorld Group, Inc., his agency started with five employees in a small three-room office off Times Square in New York City.

Lewis's vision for the agency was a multifaceted promotional corporation that would focus on ethnic consumers. "It was a lot of hand-to-mouth at that time," said Bill Allen, UniWorld's senior vice president and director of creative services, about UniWorld's early days in Black Enterprise. "But Byron always made sure the payroll was met."

In 1974 a national recession that cut many companies' advertising budgets almost put Lewis out of business. Then he bounced back by producing a black radio soap opera called Sounds of the City. Media buys resulting from the program helped his agency earned its first million dollars in gross sales. Lewis expanded the entertainment division of UniWorld by producing America's Black Forum, a nationally syndicated news program. Hosted by Julian Bond and Janet Langhart, this program became syndicated in over 70 markets and eventually reached a weekly audience of over one million viewers. UniWorld has also created a series of one-hour programs on black life in various American cities, and worked on a co-venture with the Societe Francaise de Production, France's largest production company, for a music special about Lena Horne.

Venturing from the small screen to the big screen with his public relations division, Lewis has provided publicity for high-profile motion pictures produced by Time Warner, TriStar Pictures, Columbia Pictures, and other movie companies. Films promoted by UniWorld have included Malcolm X, Glory, Boyz 'N the Hood, and A Bronx Tale.

Over the years Lewis has used his marketing muscle to publicize worthy causes for health, education, and other improvements in inner-city health and achievement. He has also had a long-standing business association with nationally prominent African American leaders. Lewis supervised advertising and media campaigns for former mayor Kenneth Gibson's political campaign in Newark, New Jersey; the first Black Political Summit in Gary, Indiana; Reverend Jesse Jackson's first presidential campaign in 1984; and the first on-site black radio and press coverage of the 1976 Democratic and Republican presidential conventions.

Events marketing has held a special appeal for Lewis during his career. His agency has produced and provided sponsors for the annual television special Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame. UniWorld also handled Spain's quincentennial celebration of the discovery of America. This massive campaign involved U.S. President George Bush, the king and queen of Spain, and 21 heads of state from Latin countries.

By 1991, Lewis's UniWorld had become a $60-million a year business. That year he heightened his profile in the advertising industry by acquiring a general-market agency. Lewis made the acquisition in response to the dramatic change in racial and ethnic demographics in the United States during the 1980s. "Whites aren't going to disappear," Lewis told Adweek at the time. "Besides, I've always wanted this place to have a universal minority capacity." According to Lewis, the expansion of UniWorld's advertising domain was part of a long-term trend since he had founded the agency. "For 21 years now, we've been bringing mainstream competence to minority markets," he continued in Adweek. "So while we've been competing successfully on their terms, we've been expanding on our terms."

Lewis has always guided his agency to keep up with the latest fads and fashions to promote products. In some cases, his timeliness has led to adoption of his ads for general audiences. A case in point was UniWorld's television commercial for Gatorade, which featured hip-hop music and dancing backing up a slogan of "Kick It, Quench It." When the commercial hit home with black audiences, Gatorade decided to use it nationwide for all audiences. "The African American culture is the driving force in America's youth culture," explained Lewis about his campaign's mainstream impact, according to Black Enterprise.

Lewis also scored a major advertising coup in 1994 when UniWorld was selected as the agency for AT&T's African American media. "By consolidating all African American media buying under the UniWorld banner, AT&T's ad dollars will work more effectively," claimed Lewis in an AT&T press release. "Our deeper ties with the communications leader will also help bring AT&T into closer partnership with the African American media and the community-at- large." UniWorld created a series of 30-second commercials that paid homage to how AT&T had helped the African American community during its history. During its 18-year relationship with AT&T that preceded this new arrangement, UniWorld had already created numerous AT&T campaigns aimed at ethnic markets. These included campaigns for the company's residential long-distance business unit, college recruitment, and Minority- and Women-Owned Business Enterprise program.

Ford Division was also added to Lewis's client roster in 1994. His agency had been taking care of black and Hispanic advertising for the Lincoln-Mercury Division of the Ford Motor Company since 1985. The new Ford assignment gave Lewis control of all advertising, media placement, and promotion for the black consumer market, according to Jet.

By the end of 1994, UniWorld was firmly entrenched as the number- one black-owned advertising agency in the United States, with total annual billings of $85 million. These billings put Lewis's agency at number 16 in the rankings on the 1994 Black Enterprise Industrial/Service 100s, according to the magazine.

Setting his sights beyond American borders, Lewis began plotting inroads into global markets in the 1990s, especially South Africa. While planning a cooperative arrangement with an agency already operating in Johannesburg, South Africa, Lewis picked up UniWorld's first client there, a nonprofit organization called Education Africa. According to Black Enterprise, Lewis saw his move into South Africa as a bridge to other client opportunities across the globe, particularly in the Caribbean. "As the name UniWorld suggests, Lewis intends to be a major player in a world market that is quickly becoming one," noted Black Enterprise.

Continuing to branch out from his original ethnic focus, Lewis announced a new deal to create advertising for all markets in the United States for the 3 Musketeers candy bar in 1995. "I'm now beginning to believe in diversity," Lewis said in an interview with USA Today about the account, according to Jet. "It's a breakthrough. This enables the industry to look at ethnic agencies in a state-of-the-art manner."

As of 1996, Lewis's agency had annual billings of more than $133,000,000 and was providing a full range of in-house advertising, public relations, event marketing, broadcast production, and entertainment-oriented communications services. With further expansion to worldwide markets within his grasp, the high-powered executive showed every sign of increasing his company's share of the global advertising business.


Minority Business Man of the Year, Interracial Council for Business Opportunity, New York City, 1980; Pioneer of Excellence, Board of Communication Excellence to Black Audiences (CEBA) Awards.Bold Italic
Further Reading
Adweek, April 15, 1991, p. 2.
Black Enterprise, December 1985, p. 44; January 1995, pp. 94~97.
Broadcasting, August 15, 1988, pp. 56~57.
Jet, February 28, 1994, pp. 29~30; April 3, 1995, p. 18 Wall Street Journal, August 30, 1993, p. B5.


Additional information for this profile was obtained from publicity materials of UniWorld Group, Inc., as well as AT&T press releases accessed on the Internet.

— Ed Decker