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Shirley Riley-Davis, pioneer advertising executive, dies at 78

By Graydon Megan
Chicago Tribune

(August 15, 2013) Shirley Riley-Davis was a trailblazer in the advertising industry, an African-American woman with a unique understanding of people and their concerns and a well-honed talent for writing.

"She understood the essence of being human and she could write to that," said Herbert Allen, who worked with Mrs. Riley-Davis when she transferred to a Chicago advertising agency after working for many years in New York.

"It was her insight into the consumer," said Allen, now a professor at Columbia College Chicago. "She would use simple language to craft a headline and (ad) copy, and it would make that connection."

Her award-winning work included a groundbreaking ad series she put together for what was then AT&T Long Lines when she was a creative executive with the N.W. Ayer agency in New York. The 1969 ad series featured NBA star Bill Russell.

A New York Times story in 2000 about Russell drew a letter to the editor from Mrs. Riley-Davis, commenting on the historic nature of the ads.

"I believe," she wrote, "he was the first African-American sports figure to appear in a Fortune 500 advertising campaign."

Mrs. Riley-Davis, 78, died Saturday, June 15, in the Imperial of Lincoln Park in Chicago, after a second bout with leukemia, according to her daughter, Terri Davis. She had moved to Michigan in the early 1990s to care for her mother but returned to Chicago about a year ago.

Born Shirley Riley in Pittsburgh, she attended the University of Pittsburgh and began her advertising career there.

When she was 18, she won an essay contest on what advertising meant to her. Her first job in advertising was writing copy and shopping columns and creating ads for a large Pittsburgh department store.

"My mom always knew she wanted to be in advertising," her daughter said. "That's what she did, that's what she loved."

The store work was great training for Mrs. Riley-Davis, as sales results gave her immediate feedback on her work.

She soon moved to New York, where she wrote print and radio copy for brands including Old Spice and Manpower Deodorant. She took a job with Ayer as a creative executive working on the AT&T account, among others.

Family matters brought her to Chicago in 1976. She worked on the Kraft Foods account for Ayer's Chicago office and then was recruited by Leo Burnett, where she worked on such key accounts as Kellogg's, Allstate Insurance and McDonald's.

She retired in 1990. Her many awards include several Clios, the advertising industry's recognition of creative excellence.

In the late 1970s, Mrs. Riley-Davis, who loved movies, was introduced by Allen to Facets Multimedia in Chicago and to one of its founders, Milos Stehlik.

"She joined up as a volunteer to help with advertising and marketing," Stehlik said, adding that Mrs. Riley-Davis eventually became a member of the Facets board.

"People in the arts can be self-centered," Stehlik said. "She really taught me a user-centered or consumer-centered approach to marketing."

Stehlik called Mrs. Riley-Davis "a consummate listener, intuitively analytical in understanding how to communicate an issue directly and emotionally."

Terri Davis said at heart her mother was a writer who wrote every day, whether it was poetry, plays or short stories. Davis said her mother was unconcerned about getting her work published or performed.

"It was really more about the joy of continuing to create," Davis said.

Mrs. Riley-Davis is also survived by a sister, Darryel Hubert.

A memorial celebration will be held at 1 p.m. Aug. 25 at Facets Multimedia, 1517 W. Fullerton Ave., Chicago.

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