FATHER OWNED A TAVERN
Mr. Burrell knew what he wanted out of life after an aptitude test indicated he was persuasive and artistic. He had never heard of such a profession as copywriter (his mother was a beautician, his father owned a tavern), nor was the young black student aware there were no black people in Chicago's ad business. But when his teacher suggested advertising, Mr. Burrell thought it sounded like an exciting way to make a living. So he pursued it.
And he persevered. He entered the ad business after graduating from Roosevelt University in 1961, where he majored in English, minored in advertising. He told everyone he knew that he wanted a job in advertising, and he soon learned about an opening in the mailroom of a downtown agency called Wade Advertising. He was hired at $50 a week, the agency's only black employee.
"Someone, for some reason, decided to bring in a young black man," Mr. Burrell says. "This was before civil rights, before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. It had to come from someone in charge. I never learned who." Six months later, he was promoted to copywriter, working on such general-market accounts as Robin Hood flour, Alka-Seltzer and Toni home perms.
"I kept the focus," Mr. Burrell says of his determination to rise from pushing a mail cart to pushing products. "I never wavered."
That has been the mantra of Mr. Burrell's career, which has taken him from the basement of Wade to copywriter at Leo Burnett Co. to copy supervisor at Needham, Harper & Steers to his own agency, of which he is now chairman-CEO.
Burrell Communications Group is 25 years old. It has grown from a little shop with a single PR account and staff of one "girl Friday" to a full-service marketing communications company with $128 million in billings and 140 employees.
SEEN AS MINORITY SPECIALIST
It handles marketing for such blue-chip marketers as McDonald's Co., Coca-Cola Co., Procter & Gamble Co., Stroh Brewery, Polaroid Corp. and newcomer Sears, Roebuck & Co., and it has won numerous industry awards, including a Grand Effie, several Clios and various film-festival accolades.
For all its accomplishments, there is a significant downside. The agency has yet to attain Mr. Burrell's original goal of competing in the general-market advertising arena. It always has been seen as a minority marketing specialist.
"When I think of Burrell Communications, I think of them as the best in their particular area, and I've fallen in step with everyone else," says DDB Needham Worldwide Chairman-CEO Keith Reinhard, who has known Mr. Burrell since their days in the creative department of Needham, Harper & Steers.
"When you want someone to speak to the African-American community, talk to Tom Burrell. I'm just as guilty as the rest of the industry at typecasting the agency."
According to Roy Bergold, the VP-creative at McDonald's Corp. who hired the agency more than two decades ago, "Burrell is an extremely savvy creative agency in the African-American market. They're very responsive; they understand the market; they've done a wonderful job. We have Burnett, Needham, Fallon and a dozen or so major agencies around the country. We have a lot of help in the area of general-market advertising."
As part of its effort to scale the walls to the general market, Burrell last November purchased DFA Communications, a general-market direct-marketing shop in New York. Mr. Burrell says the agency is exploring further acquisitions in such areas as Hispanic marketing, sales promotion, event marketing and sports marketing.
But that is in the present. In the beginning, Mr. Burrell never gave much thought to target marketing, nor did he ever think it would be such a hurdle to expand beyond it. He just wanted to run his own show.
Walking past the president's office at NH&S many years ago, Mr. Burrell, a copy supervisor at the time, had an epiphany: "I realized that even if I had the opportunity to sit in that office, I would not want it. I wouldn't like the transformation I'd have to go through-racial, yes, but also corporate. I wanted something to shape the way I wanted it to be."
He put together a team of like-minded entrepreneurial spirits, admen Emmett McBain and Frank Mingo. But not long after the team listed itself in the 1971 Chicago Yellow Pages as Mingo, Burrell, McBain, Mr. Mingo changed his mind.
"At the last minute, Frank got cold feet and decided he wasn't going to leave [J. Walter Thompson]," Mr. Burrell says.
The other two went forward as Burrell McBain, and Mr. Mingo stayed put, albeit not for long. He later formed what is now known as Mingo Group, New York; he died in 1989. Mr. McBain is now a free-lance art director in Chicago.
Burrell McBain's early years at 360 N. Michigan Ave. were lean but, to the ever-optimistic Mr. Burrell, intensely challenging.
"I was married with a baby. It wasn't the time to do it, but I did it anyway," he says. Money was scarce, and Mr. Burrell was under so much stress that his weight dropped to 175 from 225 pounds-quite slim for a man 6 feet 4. At one point, he checked himself into an emergency room because he thought he was having a heart attack.
NO SEED MONEY AVAILABLE
"No one would loan us money," Mr. Burrell says, recalling with paternal affection those early years. "We had a staff of one, a girl-Friday named Caroline Boston, who wrote copy, typed, did everything. We talked ourselves into getting a PR assignment for nightclubs-a black assignment." The fee: $1,000 a month.
Mr. Burrell says he didn't start the agency because he saw gold in target marketing-he had never given it much thought. The black consumer market was merely his unique selling proposition, a tool he thought would get the agency into general-market work.
WANTED OWN BUSINESS
"I wanted my own business, and I wanted to do it in a professional way, a way that was financially rewarding and intellectually stimulating, and that required working with the kinds of clients I had been dealing with for the 12 years I was in the business," says Mr. Burrell. "Since there was no need for them to fire their well-established, large agencies to come and be clients of this start-up, two-man operation, I had to come up with an angle. That's how I came to niche marketing."
It took just a couple of years for major advertisers to heed Mr. Burrell's call to notice black consumers. By 1973, clients included McDonald's, Coke, Philip Morris Co. and Brown-Foreman. Budgets still were small-in 1976 Burrell's billings were just $6 million-and most of the work was for black magazines and radio stations.
Todd Kaiser, who joined Burrell in 1971 as VP-director of client services, remembers a print campaign for Marlboro that shaped the way the marketer spoke to black men.
COWBOY WAS A LOSER
"Tom looked at Marlboro's ads and said: `To the white man the cowboy is a hero, but to the black man he is a loser. He's out there on the plains all by himself, his only friend is his horse and he has to sleep outdoors all the time,"' Mr. Kaiser remembers. "So we did a market research study to define masculinity from the black man's perspective. We found it meant a man who took charge of family, lived in the city, was involved with people in a responsible role. Tom and Emmett totally redefined masculinity for this new audience and did a very successful campaign. Market share did turn around, Marlboro began to get penetration to the young black male market."
Like many of Mr. Burrell's present and former colleagues, Mr. Kaiser looks back fondly on the agency's early years. But Mr. Kaiser, who is white, recalls the dispiriting moments, too, like walking through airports with Mr. Burrell and other equally tall black agency principals and being taken for professional athletes. "People always assumed that they were basketball players and I was the coach," Mr. Kaiser says. He also notes the times when they were asked to eat in the kitchens of restaurants in Lynchburg, Tenn., where Brown-Forman's Jack Daniel's is distilled.
More troubling were the new-business presentations. "There was this thing that we dealt with: Every other white man assumes the white man is the boss," he said. "Clients and prospective clients always addressed questions and issues to me."
TV BOON TO AGENCY
TV helped to solidify Burrell's standing in the ad world. When it got the chance in the mid-'70s to do targeted spots for McDonald's and Coke, Burrell's creativity exploded like soda from a shaken can of pop. Using a method Mr. Burrell coined as "positive realism," the agency's TV spots celebrate African-American culture, lifestyle and values. Many commercials are deeply woven into the fabric of American advertising culture, and they're very often copied.
"It's extremely easy to just cast African-Americans in advertising and make yourself feel good that you are doing African-American advertising," says Mr. Bergold. "Tom brings the black lifestyle to the advertising-he makes it truly realistic."
Who could forget "Street song" for Coke in 1976? The spot that launched a thousand copycats shows a group of urban black kids singing a cappella about Coke. Or how about "Daddy's home" for McDonald's in 1977? The spot shows a father who works the night shift taking his eager son to McDonald's on Saturday.
"Street song" is a landmark commercial. Because of its popularity, Coke mixed it into the broadcast cycle and used it to reach all audiences, not just black consumers. "It was the first time we discovered the universality. There were things that were inherently black, but the commercial crossed over, it struck a lot of chords," says Anna Morris, the longtime creative director at Burrell who left last year to start B4 Productions in Chicago.
"Street song" was a turning point on many levels: It showed Burrell could do advertising that appealed to the total market; that advertising showing blacks could still appeal to the white market; and that black consumers were a significant market in and of themselves. Financially, it enabled Burrell to participate in a broader aspect of media.
"It was a significant milestone in convincing clients that we ought to be in that very important media called television, with targeted advertising. Till then they had been reticent in doing that," says President Sarah Burroughs, who joined the agency as VP-director of marketing in 1974, the same year Mr. McBain left and the agency changed its name to Burrell Advertising.
STRONG GROWTH TO '86
The years 1974 to 1986 were ones of good times and strong growth: 15% to 20% annually. From 1978 to 1980 alone, Burrell doubled its billings to $20 million. Expanding TV budgets and a growing client roster also brought a change in the focus to a full-service marketing communications company, compelling it to hire experts in media, PR and research.
Another major coup-one of the biggest for any agency-occurred in 1984, when marketing behemoth P&G tapped Burrell as its African-American agency.
A NEW LEVEL VIA P&G
"P&G took us into a different level of marketing. Everyone acknowledges that if you make it with P&G, you are at the pinnacle of consumer package goods," says Ron Sampson, senior VP-director of corporate development. (Mr. Sampson's connection to the agency transcends his title and standing: He helped Mr. Burrell get started in the ad business. Mr. Sampson was selling ad space at Ebony when he learned of the mailroom opening at Wade. He told his brother-in-law, a fraternity brother of Mr. Burrell's, who passed the tip on to Mr. Burrell.)
The late '80s were lean years for Burrell, when the economy did a yo-yo, ad budgets hit the skids and competition over target marketing accounts intensified. "One year during a very lean period, those of us in management took temporary-I emphasize temporary-salary reductions. We were later reimbursed," says Ms. Morris.
But the lean years helped the agency learn to tighten controls, scrutinize spending, reduce staff. The shop now is led by a management team of seven: Mr. Burrell; Ms. Burroughs; Mr. Sampson; John Stanek, senior VP-chief financial officer; Fay Ferguson, senior VP-client service director; McGhee Williams, senior VP-general manager-Atlanta; and Alma Hopkins, senior VP-executive creative officer.
CRITICAL PERIOD UPCOMING
The team faces a critical period in the coming years. Breaking into the general market has never been more important, because general-market agencies are encroaching on target-marketing accounts. Burrell has had a few experiences with mainstream advertising, among them McDonald's McDLT, Polaroid's Talking Camera and Brown-Forman's Martel cognac.
But the agency has yet to get a general-market account with a significant, long-term ad budget- and that smarts most of the people who've worked in and around it. It's the very divisiveness between the races that has been most frustrating to those close to the agency.
"The biggest disappointments were to go into new-business pitches and to be demonstrably the better agency but to lose for racial reasons; I will stand by that," says Ms. Morris, echoing statements by others. "There were a number of occasions in which Burrell has bled for an account, and when you analyze why we didn't get it, it becomes a matter of black and white."
Says Keith Reinhard: "For an African-American agency to skyrocket and capture the imagination as a general-market agency, they have to do more than once some things that nobody else can do-maybe creatively. Jackie Robinson had to be a lot better than any other baseball player. The difficulty for them is getting clients who will ask you to do that kind of work. It's a conundrum."
But it's also a challenge, and Mr. Burrell is inspired by challenges. He says the agency's goal now is to diversify so that ethnicity is not the only stamp on its letterhead.
Areas of exploration-internally and through acquisitions-include Hispanic marketing, sales promotion, events and sports marketing. And it's exploring the world of new media as well.
OPTIMISTIC IN FACE OF ADVERSITY
The future bodes well for Burrell Communications. Mr. Burrell is one of those who remains optimistic in the face of adversity. His philosophy for his agency mirrors that of his own life. It was hatched in youth, when he transferred high schools to better his opportunities. It crystallized 30 years ago, when as a young adman he was diagnosed with macular degeneration of the eyes, a disease that seriously impairs his central vision but not his peripheral vision.
"When I first heard about it, I asked the doctor `Well, will I be able to see?' The doctor said `Not completely.' and I asked, `Will I go blind?' He said no, because it only effects my central vision. My response was `Hey, that's great news.' I look at life in terms of what I have left, not in terms of what I have lost. I look at myself at 57, and I think of all that I have. It's fantastic. It's miraculous."