In the early 1960s Dan Vargas left his creative mark on Madison Avenue and helped open the door for others.
Dan Vargas is used to standing out. As a young boy, he was one of the few Latinos living in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York.
Once he entered the working world, he was the only “Spanish guy” around as he likes to put it– an olive-skinned Puerto Rican amidst a sea of blue eyes and fair skin. And in 1990, Vargas became the CEO of Vargas & Amigos, Inc., the first Latino-owned advertising agency in Atlanta, Georgia and the Southeast. Standing out is a fate he’s learned to embrace.
With an apartment in a three-floor rise up and an icebox as a refrigerator, it was hard for Vargas to imagine a life outside of Brooklyn as a young boy. His neighborhood was not the epicenter for hipsters, chic coffee shops and tattoo parlors that it is today—life in Williamsburg was rough. But he found his escape in the world of art and advertising.
At 14, Vargas took a job as a messenger for Sukon, an art studio located in Midtown Manhattan, where he delivered their contributing work to different advertising agencies.
Unlike his laborer father, the men Vargas worked for were paid to think. They sat behind desks in comfortable chairs. They wore sharp suits and fancy ties, their hair always neat and their appearance pristine. “The people at the agency looked very cool and were respectable people,” says Vargas, now 78. “I said to myself, ‘these are the people I want to imitate.’”
The ad men saw an inquisitive and intelligent young man in Vargas—they took him under his wing and offered the young boy advice. Soon the inquisitiveness grew into ambition “Advertising got me out of the hood” said Vargas. “I embraced every moment of it because it was different than what I knew.”
By the age of 21, Vargas was a full- fledged art director, just like the men he’d grown to admire. A graduate of the School of Industrial Art in New York City, he served as executive art director at the worldwide advertising agency network, BBDO. Previous titles include Creative Director at Wells Rich Greene and Executive Creative Director at RSVT. As an art director, Vargas has handled corporate accounts such as Coca-Cola, Avon and most recently General Mills.
In a white-dominated field, Vargas has had to build a name for himself. “I had to break a lot of rules because I didn’t look the part,” says Vargas. “I’m not blonde I don’t have blue eyes— people didn’t feel comfortable working with me. They were used to a certain type of breed and I’m not that breed.” But his drive, commitment and fearlessness is what got him the job time after time.
Vargas eventually made the move to St. Louis, Missouri, where he single-handedly transformed the game of advertising. Vargas was hired by Wells Rich Greene to handle accounts for Anheuser-Busch. It was during his time with Wells Rich Greene that Vargas and his team created Busch Gardens theme park in Tampa, Florida, an accomplishment for which he won 5 Clio awards. After that, says Vargas, “the phone was ringing off the hook.”
THE BIG BREAK
In 1990 Vargas was working in Atlanta when he received a call from Tony Flores, manager of Hispanic affairs for Coca- Cola at the time. Flores was looking for a Latino creative director to handle Latino outreach–Vargas was exactly the guy he was looking for. Soon, the Hispanic business of Vargas and Flores teamed up to form the first Latino agency in Georgia, Vargas-Flores & Amigos, Inc., now known as Vargas & Amigos, Inc.
But many couldn’t understand Vargas’ vision for a Hispanic ad agency–the Latino population was practically nonexistent in Georgia at the time.
“After I became head of a Hispanic ad agency, nobody took my calls,” says Vargas. Vargas’ popularity plummeted, but he stuck to his vision.
But in the late 90’s, the Latino population in the U.S. exploded. Census information revealed what Vargas had predicted for quite some time: the Hispanic population was growing exponentially. And they were here to stay. The number of Latinos in Georgia reached 435,227 in 2000.
“People often times don’t have the contacts and don’t know how to reach the Hispanic market,” says Vargas. “I know how to reach them, I have the contact and I have the credibility to do so.”
In its more than twenty years of existence, Vargas & Amigos, Inc. has reached both national and international status, handling accounts such as Coca- Cola, Pizza Hut, White Water theme parks, the U.S. Marines and the Olympics.
Vargas is not only a game changer, but a risk-taker. It is his willingness to take risks that has made Vargas an advertising pioneer. “I was told I would never make it in the advertising business,” says Vargas. “You’ve got to be able to jump out of the wheel and start running, take that chance. You have to take chances because nobody is going to hand you anything.”
And as powerful as he is, it is quite clear that the creative powerhouse is hugely admired by those who work alongside him.
“Dan is that rare combination of creativity, intelligence, maturity and unbridled passion. His design and art direction is world class. His drive is endless. And his laugh is infectious,” wrote Larry Tolpin, President of Intermark Group and former CEO and Chief Creative Officer of BBDO and JWT in an email.
Tolpin has known Vargas for roughly 30 years– Vargas was his creative mentor and eventually became his creative partner when Tolpin was CEO and Chief Creative Officer of BBDO South. Tolpin refers to Vargas as a creative legend and a world-class talent.
“Dan always took a unique creative route, creating his own distinct style and perspective. Where most creative people create campaigns, Dan created emotive experiences,” says Tolpin. “He wrapped the user experience around a design challenge like a scientist – and then wrapped the aesthetic experience around the project like an artist.”
Vargas’ likeability and strong reputation is evident in the inspiring recommendations left in his LinkedIn profile:
“I have known Dan for several years and he has always been a man of his word to his clients, family and community,” says Roberto G., president of Arqisa Media Productions. “The leadership and experience he brings to the advertising industry is without a doubt the best I’ve worked with in the past 30 years.”
With a thick Brooklynite accent and a kind spirit, Vargas is easy to like. His charisma radiates as he speaks and he treats those around him as lifelong friends. It’s difficult to be captivated by his success but also by his creativity and intelligence.
As a former professor and head of the advertising department at Atlanta’s prestigious Portfolio Center, Vargas has also made a lasting impression on the students he taught for over a decade.
“Dan Vargas has a teaching style that leaves an impression for a long time,” wrote former student Charbel N. “Teaching is one thing, imprinting a skill in students’ creative minds is another. Dan Vargas did both.” But the man behind such a powerful agency keeps his feet firmly on the ground. “You’ve got to be grateful for everything that you have and you’ve got to be happy with what you came out to be,” says Vargas.
It’s a fate Vargas wishes to share with his own community. His spare time is spent doing outreach alongside his wife, community leader Jennifer Vargas; the couple collects and donates toys to needy families. It’s a past time both he and Jennifer are passionate about.
Vargas has made an impact both in and outside the world of advertising. But perhaps one of his greatest accomplishments is breaking the mold for Latinos nationwide. “I feel really good about seeing change,” says Vargas. “At one time the Spanish market didn’t exist–I’m very appreciative to see minorities– women, Blacks, Latinos, Asians–getting ahead.”
His own daughter, Marcía Vargas, also in advertising, is testament to just how expansive the advertising world has become since Vargas was a young messenger boy in Brooklyn.
It’s a change that Vargas himself helped create.