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“Creative… all the time:” Madison Ad Fed’s First and Only Black President Looks Back on 40-year Career in Advertising

Rod Ritcherson

Many of us have a passion for a certain thing. Some have a passion for singing and some for cooking. Roderick Ritcherson, who goes by Rod, has had a passion for advertising for over 40 years.

Rod was born in Houston, Texas but moved to Madison in 1966. His parents were both teachers, and his dad was also a successful football coach who was also the first black coach ever hired by the University of Wisconsin.

Rod went to high school at Madison Memorial and later graduated from UW-Madison where his major was education. A lot of his relatives were teachers so he felt that education was the way to go, but during his junior year he felt differently. He decided he did not want to become a teacher.

Rod explains the moment when he knew advertisement was what he wanted to get into. “So, as I’m sitting around in the house where I lived, I found myself … watching a lot of TV, being exposed to a lot of TV commercials,” he says. “And so, one day, all of a sudden, I blurted out, ‘I can do that.’ And what I meant by that was was somehow, the little voice inside of me said, you should be doing that. And so, once I say it, I can do that. I knew that somehow advertising was what I was supposed to be doing, so I spent the next six months learning as much as I could about the world of advertising.”

Rod continues saying, “As a matter of fact, for me, I learned more in those six months than I did in four years of school, because it’s something that I’ve wanted to do, something I was passionate about.”

Rod was new to advertising and it wasn’t easy getting a job. In advertising, the way you get a job is by showing a portfolio of your work. Since he did not have a job in advertising yet, and therefore  Rod decided to make his own portfolio of his own ideas for commercials and take it to different agencies in Chicago and Madison.

Rod said they all ended up saying the same thing: “Hey great portfolio here, but you don’t have any experience.”

Rod eventually landed a job at Stephan and Brady, which at the time — 1972 — was the largest advertising agency in Madison. Stephan and Brady was the place anyone in advertising wanted to work, so he was very fortunate to have gotten the job. From here he went on to Home Savings Bank and later became the vice president there. Then he went on to Wisconsin Power and Light, now called Alliant Energy, where he was a manager of corporate communications and went on to take on the company’s public relations efforts. After this he started his own business, the Ritcherson Companies, where he is still involved in advertising, marketing, public relations, media relations, special events planning, and public affairs for a variety of clients. Rod also does a lot of political affairs and today he’s also the chair of the Dane County Cultural Affairs Commission. He and others oversee the County’s arts program.

One of the highlights of his varied career came in 1993, when he became the first Black president of what was then called the Madison Advertising Federation (now called the American Advertising Federation-Madison).

 “It felt good, but I was fortunate in that in the advertisement business, people tend to be a little more liberal thinking,” he said. “So it wasn’t as big of a deal, but it was a big deal because there were no African Americans in the advertising business in Madison at all. And so I was fortunate and felt good the fact that there was no one. And so I hoped that I could be viewed by other persons of color who wanted to get into the communications business. While I was president there were couple of other people of color and women who joined the federation. So I felt good about that, making some type of impact. But also in a broader scale, in my own job I wanted to make sure that there was diversity in the advertising that I was responsible for. And so in my jobs I made sure that happened. But being president, for me that was an accomplishment.”

Rod Ritcherson accepts the Silver Man Award from AAF-Madison in 2015

Over the past 40 years things in advertising have changed quite a bit, he said.

“As you see on TV and magazines, there is much more diversity in advertising that you see,” Ritcherson says. “I’m not convinced yet that behind the scenes, those that are creating that advertisement, if that is as diverse as it should be. That part I don’t know for certain. But yes things have improved dramatically because advertisers know that they need to go after targeted markets.”

Ritcherson says one of the most difficult things about advertising is the constant need for creativity.

“You know how we all can get brilliant ideas when we’re driving, walking, or in the shower or whatever,” he says. “Well, once you’re in the business that’s your profession, and you need to be able to do that all the time. So that becomes a challenge, because people want you to be creative on the spur of the moment. All the time.”

To follow that he says what his favorite part of advertisement is. “It’s to see the end product,” he says. “I like to be able to imagine, to visualize, conceptualize in my head. And I’ll see the whole commercial in my head down to every minute point. I’ll see every little detail in my head before you ever see it on your TV set.”

Since almost everything has gone digital, advertising has had to change, which Ritcherson says has made things both easier and harder. “It has made it much more of a challenge, because through social media there are so many other ways of getting your message across,” he says. “But it also means that, you as a consumer, you’re being bombarded by a whole lot more messages from radio, TV, social media, your phone and computer. The digital world through social media has made it easier to get to you, but its made it easier for everybody to get to you.”

Ritcherson says that none of his relatives were really been into the creative sides of things or in the advertising business.

“Everyone (in my family) has the creative gene. Some maybe more than others, but everyone has the ability to create,” he says. “It’s how you apply your thinking. Like, my dad being a football coach, in his own way, he was creative because he would devise football plays that were very creative, that the other coaches couldn’t compete against.”

Ritcherson goes to explain how and why he decided to start his own business, The Ritcherson Companies.

“It was just time. Something that I had just thought about doing. You can think about doing stuff, but just thinking about them doesn’t make them happen. So I finally just made a decision and pulled the trigger. And it’s a scary thought because when you have a job, you have a paycheck every two weeks. When you start your own business, that stops,” he says. He says his favorite part about having his own business is the interaction with clients. Solving clients’ problems and seeing the results of that. His most difficult part is having enough hours in the day to get things done.

Even though there may not be enough hours in the day sometimes, Rod continues to love his job and run his own business.