THIS WAS SUPPOSED TO BE THE YEAR that Lionel Sosa slowed down. Over a quarter century, the diminutive man with the dancing eyes had built a successful career by advising such clients as Coca-Cola, Sprint, Burger King, American Airlines, and Polaroid on how to reach the growing number of Latino consumers in the United States. In time, he turned his San Antonio advertising agency, Sosa, Bromley, Aguilar, Noble, and Associates, into the largest Hispanic agency in the U.S., with annual billings of more than $100 million. But Sosa had finally had enough; it was time to retire. He wanted to escape the cutthroat ad game unscathed, still a good guy even after making his millions. He would travel, spend more time with his family, and concentrate on painting, a childhood passion.
At least that was the plan. On January 1, the day his retirement was to take effect, Sosa signed on at KJS, a small ad agency founded by his wife, Kathy. And while he managed to squeeze in a vacation in the South of France, the 57-year-old has spent most of 1996 working harder than ever. He’s still trying to figure out how Anglo businesses can better market their products to Hispanic consumers, but these days he’s also teaching Hispanic entrepreneurs how to overcome their inferiority complex and market themselves to Anglos. “We see ourselves as different and second-class,” Sosa says, echoing the sentiment of his new book, The Americano Dream: How Latinos Can Achieve It in Business and in Life, which E. P. Dutton will publish sometime next year. “We may fight it, but in our heart of hearts, we truly feel that we’re not worthy. If somebody thanks us for something, we always say de nada —it’s nothing. There are dozens of phrases like that emphasizing a subservience.”
Sosa learned that lesson in his earliest days growing up on San Antonio’s West Side. Both of his parents were born in Mexico and immigrated to the city as children during the Mexican Revolution. His father ran a dry-cleaning business; his mother was a housewife who pushed her four children to follow their dreams. “She always said, ‘Lionel, you are going to make it. Even though you are Mexican, you are going to succeed.’ Many of us receive such mixed messages. It was confusing. It took me a long time to work that out.”
After graduating from Lanier High School, Sosa joined the Marines, hoping upon his discharge to become an illustrator at Walt Disney Studios in Los Angeles. He was turned down for a job, however, and returned to his hometown, where he spent eight years designing neon and plastic signs before starting his own graphic design studio, Sosart. His first big break came when he won a contract to do work for HemisFair, held in San Antonio in 1968. “We received so much publicity that all the local advertising agencies began to hire us to do their graphics,” he says. Sosart subsequently won jobs with Church’s Fried Chicken and other big clients in town. By 1974 business was so good that Sosa expanded his company into an ad agency, which later merged with another San Antonio agency, Ad Works, to form a company called Ed Yardang.
Another big break came in 1978, when advisers to U.S. senator John Tower, a Republican, decided to court the Mexican American vote, which had traditionally gone Democratic. Tower hired Ed Yardang, even though, as Sosa recalls, “we didn’t know doodly about politics and we didn’t know doodly about Hispanic advertising.” Still, Tower captured 37 percent of the Hispanic vote en route to beating Democrat Bob Krueger by only one half of one percent. The victory brought a mountain of attention to Ed Yardang, and within four months the agency’s new clients included Coors, Bacardi, and Dr Pepper—all of whom wanted to target the same Hispanic market that Tower did.
In 1980 Sosa went out on his own, forming Sosa and Associates, which eventually became Sosa, Bromley. He employed the same approach he had honed at Ed Yardang for a new batch of clients. Take Western Union, which billed itself as the fastest way to send money. “In focus groups,” Sosa says, “we found out that Hispanics were using Western Union to transfer money to Latin America. That was the most important thing for them. So we said: Western Union is the way to keep the promise that you made when you came to America, the promise of a better life for yourself and for your family back home. By sending money to your family every month—Western Union helps you keep that promise.”
Today, Sosa is teaching his colleagues at KJS to take the same problem-solving approach to another level: He wants to develop a single multicultural strategy that can be applied to Latinos, African Americans, and Asian Americans all at once. “Instead of having to say, ‘Reach out and touch someone’ in the general market and then try to make it say, ‘Extend your finger and make contact’ in Spanish, find a phrase that will work for everyone in the same way.” He’s enough of a realist to know that the one-world concept is still only that—a concept. But he’ll keep at it until he nails it; retirement will just have to wait. “The six a.m. to nine p.m. days are certainly over,” he says. “But I’m able to utilize a lifetime of learning to help teach young people how to apply sound marketing strategy and principles for the purpose of growing the client’s business. And for me, that’s just too much fun.”