William “Bill” Sharp was in his 30s when he decided to follow his creative muse and enter the advertising business, leaving his job as communications director at the Office of Economic Opportunity in Washington, D.C. to become a copywriter in his hometown of Chicago.
Despite getting a late start, the natural-born salesman with a flair for the written word quickly ascended the agency ranks. In 1972, after successful stints at EURO RSCH Tatham, Leo Burnett and J. Walter Thompson and others, Sharp moved his family to Atlanta to take a job with Coca-Cola USA, where he managed all advertising for the company's soft drink brands. He was elected vice president four years later.
Sharp passed away in Atlanta last month from complications of Parkinson’s disease. He was 83.
“Bill’s story is an amazing story,” Tom Burrell, Sharp’s cousin and former colleague, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “It is a profile of someone who willed himself to a better place.”
Heralded as a trailblazer for African-American advertising professionals, Sharp created The Basic Ad Course during his years in Chicago to address a glaring lack of diversity in the industry. The program, which was sponsored by the American Association of Advertising Agencies, is credited with bringing color to a monochromatic field and inspiring countless young minorities to follow in his footsteps. He later published a book titled How to be Black and Get a Job in the Advertising Agency Business Anyway.
“He was the living model of ‘Yes I can,” Burrell said in a video homage to Sharp compiled for his 2009 induction into the American Advertising Federation (AAF) Hall of Fame.
Sharp was respected among his peers not only as a gifted communicator, lecturer and educator, but also as a civic champion and inspirational mentor for minority youth. He received numerous awards throughout his storied career, including Ad Man of the Year for Southern Magazine and The Art Directors Club of New York Award.
During Sharp’s tenure as Vice President and Advertising Manager for Coca-Cola USA, the famous television commercial featuring football great “Mean” Joe Greene was released. Sharp fiercely believed in the “specialness” of the brand. In fact, he once remarked that saying ”Coke is special” is redundant.
Sharp left The Coca-Cola Company in the early 1980s to become senior vice president and general manager at Burrell Advertising/Atlanta, where he continued to polish the Coke trademark from the agency side.
In 1990, he started his own shop, Sharp Advertising Inc., specializing in African-American marketing and advertising. The firm, which grew to be one of the largest minority-owned ad agencies in the South, served clients such as Southern Company, Georgia Power, Burger King, Bell South and, of course, Coca-Cola. He closed the firm in 1998 to begin teaching at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School.A memorial service is scheduled for Aug. 10 in Chicago.