Multicultural marketing pioneer J. Melvin (Jo) Muse died suddenly on April 9, at the age of 72 in Los Angeles. The cause of death was not disclosed.
Muse co-founded Muse Cordero Chen, considered by many to be the first true multi-ethnic agency, in 1987. He graduated from the advertising program at Michigan State University in 1972 and was inducted into the Advertising Hall of Fame in 2022.
Muse was considered the “Father of Multicultural Advertising,” and convinced numerous clients of the importance of reaching out to multicultural audiences while also striving hard to get the industry to open its doors to talented people of color.
Muse himself had to push hard to enter the business. “I was actively discouraged from pursuing employment at a traditional advertising agency,” he wrote earlier this year in an article for a Michigan State alumni publication. “At the time, African Americans did not work in general marketing and advertising,” he wrote. “Like the Negro Leagues were to Major League Baseball, African Americans seeking employment in advertising had to take their game elsewhere.”
He realized quickly that if he was to change that dynamic, he would have to start his own shop.
Rather than separate agencies siloed into separate markets, Muse Cordero Chen targeted Black, Latino, and Asian consumers. It was a successful strategy, even as The New York Times somewhat condescendingly said the agency sounded like a high-concept sitcom: “An advertising agency run by a black entrepreneur, an Asian journalist and a Colombian would-be opera singer.”
The agency developed a strategic approach it dubbed the “Zones of Commonality.” It hired diverse people from varying ethnic backgrounds. “We wanted to reflect the end consumers our clients wanted to reach,” Muse said.
The agency became Nike’s first-ever ethnic agency in 1990. The win followed criticism that while Nike targeted Black consumers, it didn’t reflect their perspectives.
Muse Cordero Chen focused on issues that were roiling the Black community at the time, including family values. One controversial print ad showed silhouettes of two basketball players talking about the dual sides of their fathers. “My dad runs around,” one boy says, while the other responds, “My dad runs 4 miles a day.”
The provocative approach to advertising became they agency’s calling card. A sign on the wall at Muse Cordero Chen read, “Do the undoable, think the unthinkable, and most of all, make the motherfuckers sweat.”
One ad reflecting that ethos originally for the California Department of Health, tried to convince Black consumers to stop smoking by showing a Black Klansmen. The message? “Don’t burn your own cross.”
While he didn’t push for his children to go into advertising, he did give them guidance and support once they joined the industry. Both of his children worked with him for a period of time. His son Jordan is now Executive Partner and Head of Account Leadership at The Martin Agency. He was admitted to the American Advertising Federation Hall of Achievement in the same year his father entered the Hall of Fame. His daughter, Aireka, is a creative director, screenwriter and the founder of her own agency, A + B.
“He taught us so much,” said Jordan Muse. “He showed us that creative brilliance has no gender or racial biases. Most importantly, he showed us that race was an illusion. What's real is how people act, feel and relate to each other. We will miss him deeply.”
In 2019 Quantasy acquired the agency, which by then had been renamed Muse Communications.
After he retired, Muse remained active, hosting a podcast called Musings with Jo Muse, and serving on the board of the Center Theatre Group. He wrote his first novel, “Mixed Blessings, Is Race Real?” and was working on an autobiography called “From Mississippi to Madison Ave.”
He is survived by his wife of nearly 50 years, Carol, his children Jordan and Aireka, son in-law Myles Collins, daughter in-law Cynthia Rodriguez, and grandchildren Timothy, Mia, Miles and Nico.