Burrell Communications Group

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Founded as Burrell McBain in Chicago by Thomas J. Burrell and Emmett McBain in 1971; renamed Burrell Advertising upon Mr. McBain's departure, 1974; acquired DFA Communications, 1996; renamed DFA Advertising subsidiary Burrell Yagnik Relationship Marketing, 1999.


Burrell Communications Group, a leading African-American-owned agency founded in Chicago in 1971, has a reputation for creating advertising that strikes a strong emotional chord by portraying African-Americans in a positive and realistic manner.

Founder Thomas J. Burrell began his career in 1961 in the mailroom of Wade Advertising, Chicago, while a college student. Within six months, he was promoted to copywriter on accounts that included Alka-Seltzer, Robin Hood flour and Toni home permanents. By 1971, Mr. Burrell had been a copywriter at Leo Burnett Co. and Foote, Cone & Belding and a copy supervisor at Needham, Harper & Steers.

"Positive realism"

In 1971, Mr. Burrell co-founded Burrell McBain in Chicago with Emmett McBain, who had worked at the African-American-owned agency Vince Cullers Advertising. Opening at a time when portrayals of blacks in advertising were either scarce or stereotypical, dated and sometimes offensive, Mr. Burrell is credited with developing "positive realism," a technique depicting African-Americans using consumer products in a manner that was authentic and relevant.

The agency also used research and strategic planning to develop advertising campaigns. In 1971, Messrs. Burrell and McBain created, for example, an urban Marlboro Man for Philip Morris Cos. using research that revealed African-American men's concepts of masculinity. Finding that black men saw the traditional Marlboro Man as a lonely, rural outcast, Burrell's version was family-oriented, urban and social. The campaign was able to increase the brand's market share among African-American males.

As the agency's reputation grew, it attracted the attention of large corporate advertisers. In 1972 and 1973, respectively, McDonald's Corp. and Coca-Cola USA, selected Burrell to create their African-American-targeted advertising.

Mr. McBain left the agency in 1974, and the shop was renamed Burrell Advertising. Three years later, it won its first Clio Award for "Street Song," a 1976 TV commercial for Coca-Cola featuring African-American youths singing a cappella about the joys of drinking Coke. TV spots such as "Street song" and McDonald's "Daddy's home" in 1977 significantly increased the recognition of Burrell's work. Research showed that these ads crossed over to appeal to general as well as African-American audiences.

Between 1971 and 1979, the shop's billings grew from a $1,000 monthly retainer from a single client to about $10 million. The agency chalked up other, significant successes during the 1980s. In late 1983, Procter & Gamble Co. hired Burrell to create a campaign for Crest toothpaste targeted at African-Americans, the first time the marketer had gone outside its usual roster of agencies. Burrell's work for P&G again raised its profile within the ad community and is regarded as instrumental in the agency's subsequent success.

First general-market account

In 1985, the agency won its first general-market account for Martell cognac, with the slogan, "I assume you drink Martell." The line was developed in 1981 for the African-American market, but was found to achieve greater recall among all consumers than themes developed by the brand's mainstream agency.

Other general-market assignments followed, including work for McDonald's hamburger with lettuce and tomato (the "McDLT") and Chicken McNuggets. By 1985, Burrell, at $50 million, led all African-American-owned agencies in billings.

In 1990, Burrell was awarded the African-American assignments for P&G's Tide detergent and Kraft Foods' Stove Top stuffing. The agency was renamed Burrell Communications Group in 1992. In 1994, Sarah Burroughs, a 20-year veteran of Burrell and former head of its Atlanta office, was named president-chief operating officer. That year Burrell, along with Goodby, Silverstein & Partners and the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, took top honors at the American Marketing Assn.'s Effie Awards, winning its Grand Effie for "Who wants?" a campaign aimed at changing the attitudes of inner-city youths toward drug use.

In 1996, Burrell acquired DFA Communications, a general market advertising and direct marketing agency based in New York, adding direct marketing expertise as well as a New York presence.

Despite significant advertising industry recognition and financial success, Mr. Burrell has expressed frustration with being limited to work that mainly targets African-American consumers and with the difficulty of attracting substantial general market assignments. As mainstream marketers court ethnic consumers more aggressively, Burrell and other African-American-owned advertising companies must also contend with encroachment on their traditional base.

In an effort to garner more general market assignments, in mid-1999 Mr. Burrell sold a 49% stake in the agency to the Publicis Groupe. In 2003, Burrell Communications Group ranked No. 61 among U.S. agency brands by revenue, with $26.1 million, up 5% from 2002.

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