BURRELL SEEKS TO TURN NICHE INTO SEGMENTED MARKETING; SURVIVING AND GROWING FOR 25 YEARS AN ACCOMPLISHMENT, BUT EXECUTIVE TRIES TO DRIVE HIS OPERATION FORWARD

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Tom burrell describes his decision to open his own advertising agency with his trademark self-deprecating style: "I believe there is a gene deficiency in entrepreneurs-a logical gene that's missing or a stupid gene that's there, a gene that does not conform to logic and good sense."

Maybe, but Burrell Communications Group has been making sense of Chicago office, Mr. Burrell shared his memories, insights and phi

Advertising Age: Looking back over the past quarter century, is there anything that stands out as being the agency's greatest accomplishment?

Tom Burrell: I'd say just surviving and growing for 25 years. When I think back on all we've managed, I'm impressed....It's great to have made it.

AA: How about the disappointments?

Mr. Burrell: The heartbreak over [account] losses, when you poured everything you could into a piece of business yet in the end didn't get it, often because of issues that went beyond the work, like race or even more, relationships.

There's the disappointment of looking at work by the agency that won and, being as objective as you could, seeing traces of your work. But you just have to work harder.

AA: Your advertising agency has grown from nothing to nearly $130 million in billings. What are the keys to its success?

Mr. Burrell: No agency can really be any better or do any better than their clients...Many of our clients are No. 1 in their categories...They understand the extent to which the African-American segment is valuable and unique and that it requires serious and special effort.

AA: How has the ad world changed since your early years in it?

Mr. Burrell: It's harder, tougher. Back in the '60s, client service meant baby sitting with clients' kids, picking up an item of clothing at the store if they were in from out of town and needed something. Now, it's more work-oriented. It's not as much fun, but it's more challenging. And for the few of us who get a kick out of challenges, that's a good thing.

AA: You've been characterized as being a manager who is quick to give others their due credit. Tell us about your management style.

Mr. Burrell: One of the major principles here is empowerment of people through delegation, not only of responsibility but of commensurate authority to go with it. I refuse to do anything here that somebody else can do, because that does two things: It keeps me from doing something only I can do, and it deprives the other person of the opportunity to grow.

AA: What happens when it comes down to the wire, if you're unhappy with a tagline or something before a client presentation?

Mr. Burrell: I find a way to make it [the staff's] idea, by talking in general terms about what needs to be done. I tell people that it's my job to tell you what the problem is, and you have to come up with the solution.

AA: Many of your colleagues and clients said your creativity is key to your own success. With that in mind, tell us what makes good advertising today, and how has that changed from previous eras?

Mr. Burrell: In the old days, the notion was that people didn't have to like the advertising. That's over. Today, advertising is an extension of the product itself, and how people see the advertising is very much how they see the product. Creative is the most important element that ad agencies do-everything else is in support of it.

AA: How do you respond to the notion, espoused by some marketers and agencies, that target marketing can backfire because it can alienate the general market? How do you appeal to one group without alienating others?

Mr. Burrell: We call it the Huck Finn approach to advertising. When Mark Twain wrote "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," he was writing a dual-market piece. On one level, it appealed to kids who got an adventure story out of it. Adults read the same words and got a deeper, more philosophical meaning. Both segments enjoyed the writing. The same things apply to what we do.

AA: Give us an example.

Mr. Burrell: One of our spots that's running for McDonald's now takes place in an African art store. When black people see McDonald's showcasing African art, which is very timely given the black consumer's Afrocentric interests today, there's an extra depth to the response. White people don't get that kind of meaning, but they do get a very interesting, entertaining spot. They respond to the magical nature of it, the technique, music and style of computerized animation.

AA: Your agency made a name for itself doing TV spots, but with all the options in media, there's been a lot of talk that TV's mass appeal is waning. Do you think TV is still a powerful a commercial medium?

Mr. Burrell: Even with new technologies, TV will be the major conveyor of images for some time to come. Television, especially with the advent of cable and the new networks, will continue to be a major force.

AA: Will there come a point where there's The public is just expanding its capacity to consume media. We're voracious consumers of information. We're jamming images and figures and words into our systems as fast as we can get them. Go into people's houses: They've got the radio on, they're reading, watching TV, the computer's on, too. Younger people are doing even more.

AA: That brings us to the so-called new media. Is your agency prepared?

Mr. Burrell: We're pursuing it vigorously, especially as it applies to the black consumer market. There's a fair amount of talk about the alleged lag in the black community as it relates to computerization, but that could be very deceiving. Anyone who believes that's going to be the case over time is going to be caught short. Black consumers are heavy users of media, and when we get into something, we get into it vigorously.

AA: Your agency is very closely identified with your own name and personality. What are your long-term plans?

Mr. Burrell: To strengthen the agency to the point where I will no longer be here. We're working on succession plans. I'm 57 and I certainly plan to be around for at least six to 10 years, and I'd like to be involved as long as I'm having fun and can make a contribution, but I don't want to be around so long that I'm in the way of progress.

AA: Do either of your two children plan to join the agency to continue the legacy?

Mr. Burrell: Actually, they've expressed an interest in not being involved with the agency.

AA: Is that a disappointment?

Mr. Burrell: Not at all. I feel very strongly that parents should encourage their kids to pursue the thing that's going to make them happy, as long as that pursuit is not illegal or immoral or unethical. There's nothing more important than people finding their own song. Besides, I'm not sure I want the responsibility of steering them into this business, which is fraught with so many perils.

This is a very tough business in a lot of ways for a lot of groups of people. It's tough for anybody, and tougher when you're black. I felt if we could get through the crack in the door through niche marketing, we'd expand our activities. One thing I wasn't mindful of at that time is how, as a result of doing the job we did, that it would become so significant. I never imagined when we started this business it would be possible to have over $100 million in business dealing with African-American market.

AA: Has being an expert in your niche hindered the agency from doing general work?

Mr. Burrell: We're looking to take the niche we've chosen and that we have to some degree been limited to, and use that niche experience to expand our business. Mass marketing is dying fast, and what we've been doing for the last 25 years is what the rest of the industry is coming to: segmented marketing. Once you understand niche marketing, it's a lot easier to apply those principals to any segment.

AA: What are the principles of segmented marketing?

Mr. Burrell: The marketplace is becoming more complex and more competitive, and therefore you cannot be all things to all people and be successful. You have to determine in a very specific way who it is you are trying to reach, not only demographically but psychographically. You must understand your product and who that product is for; if you don't you will blow a lot of money and still wind up not maximizing your potential in terms of sales.

AA: Is it possible to have that and still have the Huck Finn approach?

Mr. Burrell: Absolutely-you look for the common denominators, but you have to understand that you have to look at each segment to determine what those are. The problem with mass marketing is that it's based on the premise that people are the same. Even when clients get into the black consumer market, they don't realize it's not an amorphous mass. We get people who ask "What's the best way to reach black people?" Well, which black people becomes the real issue.

AA: You've been trying since the beginning to break into the general market. I'd like it to be determined in the industry that, while we continue to be excellent at marketing to the African-American community, we will not be restricted to that.

AA: How do you get there, by buying other companies like DFA Communications, a general-market direct marketing firm?

Mr. Burrell: That's one way. People say to us, here you are buying a white company, a direct response company, a New York-based company. What we are doing is figuring out ways to expand against a real tough membrane that's trying to keep us circumscribed. We just won't be circumscribed.

The nature of client-agency relations will become less like marriages and more like dating-the old, standing relationships are breaking down. Clients are making the rules around what works best for them, and that's the way it should be.

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