In April 2017, the American Advertising Federation (AAF) inducted Carol H. Williams into the Advertising Hall of Fame. Her induction marks a major milestone in AAF’s history, as Williams is the first African American woman creative to be inducted into the Advertising Hall of Fame.
In late 1969, Williams was hired by then-Creative Director Rudolph Perz to work at one of the ad world’s most prestigious agencies, Leo Burnett. She worked there for 11 years, working her way up the career ladder as a Copy Supervisor in 1972. She was then promoted to Associate Creative Director in 1974, then becoming a Creative Director in 1976 before another promotion to Vice President in 1977 and Senior Vice President in 1979.
Her time at Leo Burnett was filled with a body of work for brands like Secret — where she launched the “Strong Enough for a Man, But Made for a Woman” campaign” — and the Walt Disney Company. She also worked closely with Perz on the Pillsbury account. While Perz has been credited with creating Poppin’ Fresh, the Pillsbury Doughboy, Williams holds the credit for coming up with Poppie Fresh, the Doughboy’s friendly, female counterpart. We recently chatted with Carol about creating “The Little Girl with Big Ideas” and why she was never allowed to be poked à la the Doughboy.
AW: How did you get inspired to create a character like Poppie? What’s her backstory?
CHW: Poppie was introduced in the early 1970s. Given that the Doughboy existed it only seemed credible that other Dough people might also be occupying a Dough realm somewhere.
By the early 1970s, the Pillsbury Doughboy was on every fresh product and the most recognized brand icon in the world. The Doughboy image was spread across the board on all the Pillsbury line and was being utilized on all products in the baking fresh dough line and then in all other product categories such as the cake mixes.
There developed a concern that it was off brand as well as overused given the Doughboy was created to represent fresh dough. So, I created Poppie, the Pillsbury Doughgirl, and she introduced all of their sweet products, beginning with Pillsbury Danish.
AW: It’s our understanding that Poppie could only pop out of sweet products like Danishes, right?
CHW: Correct, Poppie only represented the sweet products. Even when there was talk of cross-pollination, I wanted Poppie to exist autonomously from the Doughboy and not become a supporting character.
AW: And you were able to work alongside Rudy Perz — the creators of Poppin’ and Poppie in one room! What was that like?
CHW: It was great working for Ruby! His group was filled with creative and account management brilliance.
AW: What was the first campaign you worked on starring Poppie?
CHW: The first Poppie campaign was “The Little Girl with Big Ideas.” The campaign introduced recipes to enhance sweet products and make them even more like homemade and to the consumer’s own creativity in the kitchen.
I also worked on campaigns starring Poppin’ Fresh including “Nothing’s quite as good as biscuits in the morning, it’s Pillsbury’s best time of day.” I worked with the team to create a campaign for a re-introduction of fresh dough with a product innovation. Instead of a twist of the biscuit can to open to the dough product, one could crack the biscuit can on the kitchen counter and fresh dough would rise out — “Say Hello to Poppin’ Fresh Dough!”
AW: Poppie wears a little bonnet on her head and an apron. Did you also get to decide on what her accessories would be, in addition to her overall look and design?
CHW: I worked with art directors Mike Venezia and Tee Artman on all the Pillsbury campaigns and commercials produced and created from 1969 to 1979. Together, we created her look.
AW: There was a controversy on whether or not Poppie could be poked in the stomach. Can you share more about this?
CHW: As a woman, I had concerns of airing a large masculine hand poking a tiny female-identifying character, who even came off as childlike, without her consent. We in no way wanted to normalize abusive behavior towards women. As a result, I recommended that she not be poked and both my account and creative heads concurred.
AW: When did Poppie phase out of commercial spots? We miss her!
CHW: I’m not sure when Poppie was phased out. I think dollars were reallocated to main line products and this reduced Poppie’s visibility.
AW: As a young African American woman getting started in advertising in the 1970s, what was your experience like? Are there parallels between real life and the ad world shown in “Mad Men?”
CHW: There were some parallels, but “Mad Men” doesn’t have anything on the originals that I grew up with. It’s hard to quite encapsulate the reality of what it was like working with these colorful and quirky marketing and creative geniuses on a day-to-day basis. “Mad Men” doesn’t come close!
AW: What advice would you give anyone who wants to go into advertising?
CHW: Embrace your creativity. Advertising is absolutely an incredible journey, where every venue and department is driven by creativity. The creative must be centered in all that we do, no matter what department we work in. Know that rejection is a part of growing to become a great creative. No matter how difficult, do not succumb to the negative emotions of your product being rejected. It is the harshest trial of the creative journey. Keep digging, allowing your creative brilliance and beauty to flow.
Today, Carol H. Williams is the Founder, President, and Chief Creative Officer of Carol H. Williams Advertising with offices in Chicago, Oakland, and New York. The agency’s diverse team has created campaigns for clients that include Coors, General Motors, Allstate Insurance Company, and The Walt Disney Company.