Dan Vargas is used to standing out. Growing up he was one of the few Latinos living in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn, N.Y.
When he entered the working world in 1957, 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. But by 1990, Vargas had co-founded and became the CEO of Vargas & Amigos, the first Latino-owned advertising agency in Atlanta and the Southeast.
Standing out is a fate he’s learned to embrace.
As a boy it was hard for Vargas to imagine life outside Brooklyn. But he found his escape in the world of art and advertising. At 14, Vargas took a job as a messenger for Sukon, a Midtown Manhattan art studio, delivering the studio’s contributing work to advertising agencies.
Unlike his laborer father, the men Vargas worked for were paid to think. They sat behind desks in comfortable chairs, wore sharp suits and ties, kept their hair neat and their appearance pristine.
“The people at the agency looked very cool and were respectable people,” says Vargas, now 69. “I said to myself, ‘These are the people I want to imitate.’”
The ad men saw an inquisitive and intelligent young man in Vargas, taking him under their wing and offering him advice. Soon the inquisitiveness grew into ambition.
“Advertising got me out of the hood,” says Vargas. “I embraced every moment of it because it was different than what I knew.”
A graduate of the School of Industrial Art in New York City, Vargas served as executive art director at the worldwide advertising agency network, BBDO. He had previously been the creative director at Wells Rich Greene and executive creative director at RSVT and has handled corporate accounts such as Coca-Cola, Avon and, most recently, General Mills.
“I had to break a lot of rules because I didn’t look the part,” he says. “I’m not blonde, I don’t have blue eyes; people didn’t feel comfortable working with me.”
But his drive and fearlessness earned him the job time after time.
Vargas eventually moved to St. Louis, where he single-handedly transformed the game of advertising. In 1977, he was hired by Wells Rich Greene to handle accounts for Anheuser-Busch. It was during his time there that Vargas and his team transformed the Busch Gardens brewery in Tampa into the popular theme park we know today. After that, says Vargas, “the phone was ringing off the hook.”
The big break
In 1990 he received a call from Tony Flores, who was then manager of Hispanic affairs for Coca-Cola. Flores was looking for a Latino creative director to handle Latino outreach; Vargas was the perfect guy for the job. Later that year, the two teamed up to form the first Latino ad agency in Georgia: Vargas-Flores & Amigos, which became Vargas & Amigos in 2001 after the company briefly shut down while Vargas battled cancer. (Although Flores had taken on a new job during that time, the two remain close friends.)
But many couldn’t understand Vargas’s vision for a Hispanic ad agency—the Latino population was practically nonexistent in Georgia at the time.
By the late ’90s, however, the U.S. Latino population exploded. Census information revealed what Vargas had predicted for quite some time: The Hispanic population was growing exponentially (the population of Latinos in Georgia reached 435,227 in 2000).
In its more than 20 years of existence, Vargas & Amigos has reached both national and international status, handling accounts such as Coca-Cola, Pizza Hut, the U.S. Marines and the Olympics.
Vargas is not only a game changer, but a risk-taker. His willingness to take risks is what led him to become an advertising pioneer.
“You’ve got to be able to jump out of the wheel and start running; take that chance,” says Vargas. “Nobody is going to hand you anything.”
As powerful as he is, it’s clear the creative powerhouse is hugely admired by those who work alongside him.
“Dan is that rare combination of creativity, intelligence, maturity and unbridled passion," says Larry Tolpin, president of Intermark Group and former CEO and chief creative officer of BBDO and JWT. "His design and art direction is world class. His drive is endless. And his laugh is infectious." Vargas was Tolpin’s creative mentor and eventually became his creative partner at BBDO South.
“Dan's direction always elevates brands and helps create a voice that can be heard through the chatter. Nobody outworks Dan,” says Tolpin.
As a former professor and head of the advertising department at Atlanta’s prestigious Portfolio Center, Vargas also made a lasting impression on the students he taught for more than a decade.
“Dan Vargas has a teaching style that leaves an impression for a long time,” writes former student Charbel Nasser on Vargas’s LinkedIn profile. “Teaching is one thing, imprinting a skill in students’ creative minds is another. Dan Vargas did both.”
A lasting impact
With a thick Brooklyn accent and jokes to spare, Vargas is easy to like. “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,” he says.
In his free time, he and his wife, Jennifer Vargas—who is a Latino community leader in Georgia—perform community outreach, collecting and donating toys to needy families.
Perhaps one of his greatest accomplishments is breaking the mold for minorities nationwide. “I feel really good about seeing change,” says Vargas. “I’m very appreciative to see minorities—women, blacks, Latinos, Asians—getting ahead.”
His own daughter, Marcía, also in advertising, is testament to just how expansive the advertising world has become since Vargas got his start as a young messenger boy in Brooklyn. And there's no doubt it's a change that Vargas himself helped create.
Dan Vargas’s full bio is available on Latin Business Today where he serves as an advisory board member.
Photo credit: Courtesy subject