This is how Thomas J. Burrell founded Burrel Communications, one of the largest Black-owned ad firms

BY Nii Ntreh June 27, 2024 4:37 PM EDT
When it all began for Thomas Burrell and Burrell Communications. Photo Credit: PBS

America’s Black people have been at the forefront of progressive change and sustainable transformations in America and beyond, making a significant impact in various spheres of society and serving as a strong foundation for the nation. The work of Black pioneers who set out to create a niche included Thomas J. Burrell, an advertising guru, marketing and communication expert author, lecturer and musician.

Burrell is the founder and chairman emeritus of Burrell Communications, a highly acclaimed Black-owned, leading multicultural full-service communications agency.

A distinguished trailblazer and catalyst for change, Burrell is widely acknowledged for his groundbreaking efforts in transforming the portrayal of African-Americans in television advertising by incorporating positive and authentic imagery. His exceptional contributions, recognized with numerous accolades, highlighted the significant buying potential of the African-American demographic and fundamentally transformed the landscape of American advertising.

By crafting advertisements that truly mirrored the values, lifestyles, and aspirations of African-American consumers, this Chicago native established a benchmark for successfully connecting with this demographic, particularly, through the medium of television.

Burrell has played a pivotal role in the transition from mass marketing to highly efficient targeted marketing. He is known to have coined the phrase “Black people are not dark-skinned white people,” emphasizing the significance of catering to the unique needs and preferences of diverse consumer groups.

His team successfully persuaded two major television advertisers, McDonald’s and Coca-Cola, that the Black consumer market could be reached more efficiently through this medium. The TV commercials showcasing Black “positive realism” had an exceptional impact on the targeted audience without alienating White viewers. This revolutionized television advertising as the ads were often equally well-received by both the primary target and White audiences.

However, Burrell’s remarkable journey in the industry began amidst adversity. Like countless other Black individuals residing in the then-racially segregated America, he encountered numerous obstacles and setbacks. However, through unwavering determination, perseverance, dedication, and bravery, Thomas J. Burrell left an enduring legacy in the annals of American history.

Born March 18, 1939, in Chicago, IL, to Thomas Burrell, a tavern, and Evelyn Burrell, a beautician, the young Burrell began strategizing his future as a teenager at Englewood High School in Chicago’s South Side in the 1950s.

Recognizing the limitations of his current school, he orchestrated a transfer to Parker High School, which he believed would offer a superior learning environment. At Parker, he surrounded himself with like-minded students who were striving for success in fields such as medicine, law, and engineering. Additionally, he enrolled in a course called Careers, which aimed to assist students in identifying suitable career paths.

Burrell encountered obstacles in his career path when he joined Roosevelt College in Chicago as an English major and advertising minor. During his time there, Burrell was informed by one of his professors that pursuing a career in advertising would be impractical due to the scarcity of Black professionals in the industry.

 “At this time (1960), there were no Black people working in Chicago agencies in any capacity,” said Burrell. “I mean, no secretaries, no mailroom people, no receptionists. Nobody,” he added.

He began his career in advertising in the entry-level position of mailroom clerk at Wade Advertising in Chicago, earning a weekly salary of fifty dollars in 1960. As the sole Black employee at the agency, he seized the chance to absorb knowledge about the industry and the company’s operations.

He conducted independent research and proposed innovative concepts to the creative director, who was duly impressed. This interaction secured him a junior copywriter role, responsible for managing the Alka-Seltzer, Robin Hood flour, and Toni Home Permanent accounts.

He later enrolled in an intensive one-year program in Advanced Advertising Studies at Northwestern University, which proved advantageous in two ways. Not only did he refine his advertising skills, but he also established connections with other agency professionals that aided him in securing a position at Leo Burnett Advertising in Chicago.

After a year of working on Pillsbury cake and frosting mix accounts, Burrell opted to expand his horizons by traveling to Europe. He spent some time in Paris before relocating to London to work on the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) account for the London office of Foote Cone Belding, which later became British Airways.

He returned to Chicago after a year, joining Needham Harper Speers, where he dedicated his efforts to managing the Betty Crocker accounts.

Burrell would later manifest his entrepreneurial spirit by establishing Burrell McBain Advertising (now Burrell Communications) in 1971, along with his partner Emmett McBain and a single assistant. Despite having limited capital, the nascent agency possessed a wealth of talent.

To attract the attention of major corporations, Thomas Burrell recognized the necessity of establishing himself as a distinguished advertising provider. Burrell and McBain concluded that they could expand their enterprise by providing advertising tailored to Black people.

“We were unique because we had the combination of the special insight that comes with being Black, and the kind of experience in general market advertising that brought a high level of sophistication and expertise,” said Burrell.

Undoubtedly, Burrell McBain Advertising faced a challenging journey in its inaugural year, grappling with the difficulties of acquiring clients for the nascent agency.

“No one would loan us money; we had a staff of one, a girl-Friday named Caroline Boston, who wrote copy, typed, did everything,” he said.

Burrell McBain Advertising secured its initial business opportunity following an extensive six-month search, acquiring a public relations account for a Black nightclub that offered a monthly compensation of $1,000. However, the deal was short-lived.

In 1972, Burrell scored a significant breakthrough by acquiring an account with the McDonald’s restaurant chain, earning a monthly retainer of $3000. His success in marketing to Black audiences led to Coca-Cola enlisting his services for its African-American advertising in 1973.

Following McBain’s departure from the agency the following year, Burrell became the sole proprietor and renamed it Burrell Advertising. With his advertisements depicting more authentic and positive portrayals of Black Americans than previously seen on television, Thomas Burrell quickly gained recognition as a trailblazer in the advertising industry.

Before the 1970s, the majority of African-Americans featured in commercials were predominantly assigned menial positions. Embracing the concept of “positive realism,” Burrell’s television advertisements exalted the richness of African-American culture, lifestyle, and principles.

In 1976, Burrell achieved another significant milestone by producing his renowned “Street Song” commercial for Coca-Cola. This advertisement showcased urban black children harmonizing a cappella while promoting the soft drink. “Street Song” marked a pivotal moment in various aspects. It demonstrated his ability to create advertising campaigns that resonated with a diverse audience, proving that advertisements featuring black individuals could still captivate the white market. Moreover, it highlighted the importance of Black consumers as a substantial market segment in their own right.

With the “Street Song” commercial, Burrell won his first Clio Award, the industry’s most esteemed accolade for television advertising.

Burrell Communications achieved a significant milestone in 1979 when its annual billings exceeded $10 million for the first time. Within two years, the billings had doubled to $20 million. From 1974 to 1986, the agency witnessed a growth rate of 15-20% and evolved into a comprehensive marketing communications firm.

As Burrell Communications continued to boom, Burrell expanded his venture by opening a new office in Atlanta to cater to Coca-Cola’s needs. His success continued to soar as he was appointed by Proctor & Gamble to lead its African-American advertising for Crest toothpaste in 1984. In 1986, Burrell established the first public relations division in his company, and his annual billings exceeded $50 million for the first time.

To expand his market reach and solidify his presence in the advertising industry, Burrell strategically expanded his influence in the mid-1990s through the acquisition of DFA Communications, a prominent general market and direct marketing agency based in New York. Notably, DFA Communications boasted an impressive clientele, including industry giants such as Citibank and the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP). This strategic move propelled Burrell Communications to become one of the largest African-American-owned advertising agencies in the United States.

Burrell Communications, Burrell sold 49% of the company to Publicis, a French media powerhouse that offers innovative creative and digital solutions to assist clients in leading the way and achieving success in their marketing endeavors. As a result, Burrell retired from the agency in 2004 and assumed the role of chairman emeritus at Burrell Communications. Fay Ferguson and McGhee Williams Osse took the reins of Burrell Communications as co-CEOs, with Lewis Williams as chief creative officer.

However, in October 2023, Burrell Communications was acquired by an equity consortium led by minority-owned private equity firm FVLCRUM, as announced in a news release. Consequently, the Co-CEOs, McGhee Osse, and Fay Ferguson, relinquished their positions to make way for new leadership. Taking the helm as the new CEO is Tara DeVeaux, who previously served as the CMO of Wild Card Creative Group in Los Angeles and also held the role of Managing Director for its creative content division 3AM.