William ‘Bill’ Sharp, 83: Advertising trailblazer

Bill Sharp always had ideas. A natural salesman, the Chicago native found a way to start a new career, and managed to make it to the top of his field in fairly short order.

“He was over 30 years old when he decided to get into advertising,” said Tom Burrell, a colleague who is also Sharp’s cousin, “but he made up for lost time once he got in there.”

In the ’60s, Sharp landed an entry-level job in Chicago, and by 1971, Sharp moved his wife and three children to Atlanta, where he’d accepted a job with Coca-Cola. Sharp spent 10 years with Coca-Cola as a company vice president and advertising manager.

“Bill’s story is an amazing story,” Burrell said. “It is a profile of someone who willed himself to a better place.”

William Sharp, called Bill by most, of Atlanta died July 23 from complications of Parkinson’s disease. He was 83.

A memorial service is scheduled for Aug. 10 in Chicago. H.M. Patterson & Son, Oglethorpe Hill, was in charge of cremation arrangements.

Born on the South Side of the Windy City, Sharp was originally a salesman, said his daughter, Dianne Sharp Parks of Fayetteville. He was also a naturally gifted writer who loved using his imagination.

“He was a real idea guy, and he was an entrepreneur to his core,” she said.

Before Sharp moved to Atlanta, he noticed there weren’t many blacks in the advertising business, and he wanted to do something about that. As a group supervisor at J. Walter Thompson in Chicago, Sharp created an initiative called the Basic Advertising Course, designed to help African-Americans learn the business.

The course was co-sponsored by his employer and the American Association of Advertising Agencies. The course helped “pave the way for African-American advertising practitioners as well as the hundreds of individuals who have continued his legacy of breaking barriers,” 4A president and chief executive Nancy Hill wrote in a letter to Sharp’s family last week.

Lincoln Stephens, director and co-founder of the Marcus Graham Project, said Sharp’s work enabled countless blacks to break into advertising.

“His efforts were not only landmark, they were necessary,” he said, “and that work continues on now in what we do, and the work of other organizations.”

Sharp stayed at Coke until the early ‘80s, when Burrell’s Chicago-based company established an Atlanta presence. In his work with what was then Burrell Advertising Inc., Sharp continued to work with Coke, as it had been one of Burrell’s clients for a decade.

While working with Burrell, Sharp took a special interest in minorities in the advertising business, and how people of color were portrayed in commercials and by the media, his daughter said. In 1990, Bill Sharp started his own ad firm, Sharp Advertising Inc., which specialized in African-American marketing and advertising. That firm, which grew to be one of the largest minority-owned ad agencies in the South, closed in 1998, at which time he began teaching advertising at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School.

During his more-than-40-year career, Sharp stayed fairly upbeat and optimistic about the state of affairs for minorities in advertising. But then again, he often managed to see the good in things, Burrell said.

“We were driving along Lakeshore Drive one day, and it was one of those overcast, cloudy Chicago-gray days,” Burrell said. “And he looked over and said, ‘Look at that bright shade of gray!’ And I thought, are you kidding? Bright shade of gray? But now I often refer to that when I’m thinking about things being bad. I stop and look for the good, or the bright shade of gray.”

In addition to his daughter Parks, Sharp is survived by his wife of nearly 60 years, Doris Sharp of Atlanta; and sons, Greg Sharp of Hamburg, Germany, and Michael Sharp of East Point.

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