From Cuban Refugee to Hispanic Ad Agency Queen
How Teresa Zubizaretta turned "weaknesses" into her agency's big strengths
Teresa A. Zubizarreta's life is a tale of unintended consequences. Growing up in Havana before Fidel Castro took power, Zubizarreta had envisioned her future "as a society housewife in Cuba." She came from a middle-class family and had been educated at the first Dominican school in Havana as well as at a private high school in New Orleans. All that fell by the wayside when she and her husband, a Hilton Hotel casino executive, fled Cuba in 1960 after the Communist revolution.
Castro's regime wasn't supposed to make hostesses into businesswomen. But suddenly, Zubizarreta says, "I had to think about how to create capital, not canapés."
Now 60 years old, Zubizarreta is a major force in Hispanic-oriented advertising in the U.S. Her Zubi Advertising agency has projected billings this year of $52 million, and last year's billings ranked 301st nationwide, according to Advertising Age. Based in Coral Gables, Fla., the agency boasts accounts that include Ford Motor, Kraft Foods, SC Johnson Wax, and the Miami Heat National Basketball Assn. team.
Zubizarreta began with little else but self confidence. She got her start in the advertising business in Miami as a secretary for the local office of the McCann/Erickson advertising firm. By 1974, she had thought about creating capital long enough to quit her job as advertising and public relations director for a residential developer and start her own ad agency.
She had $465 and absolutely no business plan. That princely sum was a retainer she persuaded her first client, a condominium developer, to give her. She arrived at it by suggesting a year-long advertising budget, adding a 15% commission, and dividing the result by 12. She scrounged a free office by promising that she'd pay as soon as she could, borrowed a typewriter, and talked someone into designing her logo for free. "Ten years later I read a book on how to start a business," she recalls. "I'm glad I didn't read it then because I did everything the opposite."
Among her first decisions was to shorten the company name. "If I had called the agency Zubizarreta, I'd still be looking for my first client. No one could spell it," she says. The first year the agency was in business, she came close enough to bankruptcy to learn two lessons: she needed to reach beyond real estate clients, and she had to focus on the Hispanic market.
"Both my husband and my father told me I wouldn't make it because I was a woman and a Hispanic. I took those two so-called weaknesses and turned them into assets," she says, noting that work targeted to Hispanic audiences now amounts to 80% of Zubi's business. "I'm a woman, and I know women because I was [at the beginning] in the most desirable age group, 25-49. As a Hispanic I know both cultures."
To get the Ford account, her agency did psychological and cultural research, which showed that recent Hispanic immigrants feel it's more important to buy a new car than a new home. Yet they hesitate to enter auto showrooms for fear they won't be treated as well as "Anglo" customers. The slogan the agency presented to Ford -- "Your spirit of accomplishment inspired us" -- turned out to be the one the auto maker adopted. Recently, Zubizarreta has been recognized for her own accomplishments. She was one of six "Women of Enterprise" honored in June through annual awards given by Avon and the U.S. Small Business Administration.
Zubizarreta is still aggressively seeking accounts. When she heard about the movie The Mask of Zorro, she pitched a joint promotion to Sony, Tristar, and Ford. The resulting TV ad ran during the NBA finals. Zorro, she says, "is a hero who crosses all boundaries." Sounds like a good motto for Tere Zubizarreta as well.
By Grace Lichtenstein in New York