Latina Ad Executive ‘Got Milk,’ Now She Helps Others Get It
November 2001

Born in New Jersey to an American father and a Spanish mother, raised near the jungles of Venezuela and currently living in Los Angeles, Anita Santiago understands the importance of culturally sensitive marketing.

Her desire to help companies effectively target Latinos by not only speaking their language, but by understanding it, has helped her rise to the upper echelon of multicultural marketing.

With about $2 million in revenue last year, Anita Santiago Advertising Inc., based in Santa Monica, Calif., is establishing itself as one of the most promising and successful businesses in the niche.

The company’s 15 employees – all minorities – helped the profitable agency earn $16 million in billings last year.

When Santiago, 46, talks to one of her clients – including Wells Fargo Bank and fast-food chain Carl’s Jr. – she not only sells what her company can do but she sells the market as well.

“When you look at the numbers it’s so compelling and outstanding,” she says. “It’s an ethnicity that believes in work and getting ahead and wanting the opportunity to have that American dream come true. It’s a marketer’s dream.”

In 1999, the country’s 31 million Latinos – 11.4 percent of the population – spent $383 billion on goods and services, according to The Selig Center for Economic Growth at the University of Georgia. That number is expected to rise to more than $450 billion this year.

Latinos make up about 31 percent of the total population of California, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 1999 statistics.

“To survive as a marketer these days, you have to look at the numbers,” she says. “The trends are changing and whoever doesn’t want to adapt to it will be left behind.”

In all of her sales calls, Santiago stresses the importance of understanding the Latino market, rather than simply translating slogans.

When the California Milk Processor Board was looking for an agency to translate it’s popular “Got milk?” tagline into Spanish, Santiago’s agency convinced the company to take another tactic.

“First, it’s a depravation strategy and that’s not funny to a community whose relatives in Mexico really don’t have milk or other foods. That’s not cute,” she says.

The second, more embarrassing problem is that the Spanish translation of “Got milk?” means, “Are you lactating?”

But the biggest sin of all, Santiago says, is ignoring how the culture behaves around milk.

“Who’s responsible for buying milk? Mom is the gatekeeper and she’s proud of that. We have to talk to her,” she says. “There’s a huge relationship between food and milk so we bring up recipes and cooking, as well.”

Santiago used a slogan targeted at Latina mothers. “Y usted? Les dio suficiente leche hoy?” means “And you? Have you given them enough milk today?”

Carl’s Jr.’s general market campaign, featuring sloppy eating and the tagline, “If it doesn’t get all over the place, it doesn’t belong in your face,” would not have worked for the Latino market, Santiago says.

“It’s very rude to be sloppy around your food in our culture. They were using an ad with a lot of attitude,” she says. “We knew it wouldn’t work. You have not earned the right to be attitudinal with this market. You’ve never targeted them before.”

Santiago’s ad used high-energy Latino music and dancing to invite Latino families to the Carl’s Jr. restaurants. Those tiny details make all the difference in an effective campaign, Santiago says.

Santiago’s multicultural education began in Venezuela’s capital city, Caracas. After graduating from a small American high school in the city, she attended Adelphi University in Garden City, N.Y., receiving a bachelor’s degree in anthropology. She went on to graduate from the State University of New York – Stony Brook with a master’s degree in Spanish literature.

Santiago’s interest in writers – stemming from her grandfather, Spanish author and philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset – brought her back to Venezuela, where she began writing a dissertation on Venezuelan writers.

Instead, she wound up working for three years as a writer for a TV station that produced award-winning soap operas and documentaries on social issues.

After being recruited for a commercial in Venezuela, Santiago started working as a copywriter for the agency directing the shoot.

But the economic turmoil of the country – where someone could lose half their savings in a day – propelled Santiago to go to Los Angeles.

Santiago thought she’d be able to use her Spanish skills at an advertising agency, but was shocked to find only two involved in any Spanish-language marketing.

After immersing herself in the field at Bermudez Associates, where she won the first Clio Award for a Spanish-language campaign, Santiago decided to start her own company. “From day one we got busy,” she says.

But becoming the biggest agency doesn’t appeal to Santiago unless she believes in every client, she says.

But becoming the biggest agency doesn’t appeal to Santiago unless she believes in every client, she says.

“We don’t form a relationship with everyone who calls us,” she says. “We won’t work with a tobacco company, for example. I know that if I take a product I’m gonna give it everything I have and I really need to believe in it.”

Just as important as sensitizing clients to Latino issues is serving as a positive role model, Santiago says.

“If I can change the mind of one young girl or boy and let them know that they can do anything, that takes marketing to the highest level it can be,” she says. “It’s a really empowering thing to do.”