New CEOs boost Burrell strengths

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For three weeks in November, a 35-year-old entrepreneur lived and worked in a glass Philadelphia storefront, doing everything from running her fledgling business to ordering food using only Verizon broadband, watched by pedestrians and a Web camera.

Burrell Communications tapped into the entrepreneurial spirit of African-Americans who work after hours on their own businesses or other projects to create the "Realize" campaign featuring African-Americans who use broadband to make their dreams come true. Then the agency went a step further with the storefront "incubator" for Verizon.

"They have formed great ideas for us," says Jerri DeVard, senior VP-brand management and marketing communications, Verizon Communications. "[At Burrell] they have a paranoia about complacency."

She adds that the incubator project is being considered "for many more markets." Broadband sales to African-Americans were 41% higher in the two markets, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., where the "Realize" campaign ran, the company says.


Marketers look to Burrell Communications, the first African-American agency to win Advertising Age's 5-year-old Multicultural Agency of the Year award, for insights into the urban consumer.

Marketers also appreciate the smooth succession management-never a given in the agency business-from Tom Burrell, who founded the agency in 1971, to its new owners and co-CEOs, Fay Ferguson and McGhee Williams Osse, two 50-ish longtime employees who worked their way up on the account management side. The two women bought Mr. Burrell's 51% stake in July 2004 and added a new chief creative officer and managing partner, Steve Conner. Publicis Groupe owns 49%.

"When he passed the baton, they didn't drop it," Ms. DeVard says. "You can argue they ran a little faster."

In its first full year after Mr. Burrell's retirement, the agency 's billings rose more than 15% after several flat years, with more than $25 million in new business from Allstate Insurance Co. and pharmaceutical marketer NitroMed, plus new products from existing clients, such as Procter & Gamble Co.'s Olay and a young-adult assignment from McDonald's Corp. Burrell is the fourth-largest African-American ad agency, according to Black Enterprise magazine. U.S. revenue in 2004 was $28 million (AA, May 2).

For P&G, Burrell handles key billion-dollar brands like Tide, Crest, Pampers, Bounty, Charmin and now Olay. In 2005 Burrell tackled the launch of Tide With a Touch of Downy. In the African-American market, Tide's premium price had propelled a five-year decline in market share, leaving the brand 5.7 points behind Tide's share in the general market. For the brand extension, Burrell captured a simple, touching moment of family life with a TV and print ad of an African-American man in a very white T-shirt sleeping with a little boy in a white T-shirt nestled on his chest. The campaign, dubbed "Nostalgia Dad," is appealing by any standard, but is especially arresting for a market in which 42% of households are headed by single mothers.


As a result, sales to African-American consumers outpaced those to the general market, and Burrell picked up the Association of National Advertisers' Multicultural Excellence Award for African-American advertising.

"That piece of advertising was so outstanding ... that we ran that spot in the general market as well, not just in our targeted media," says Anne Sempowski Ward, P&G's associate marketing director-multicultural business development organization.

Burrell also helped Toyota Motor Sales USA's Camry regain its spot as the No. 1 selling car to African-Americans, with a 3.8% share of that market, compared with 2.4% for the general market. One print ad simply shows a car in a parking lot with a glass and steel roof and the copy line "First the glass ceiling, then the reserved parking space."

"We know the message applied to everyone, but there's that certain head nod to our consumers that we get," Ms. Ferguson says.

McDonald's, Burrell's first client in 1972, remains a special one, given the large proportion of African-Americans who own or work at the company's outlets. The company's Web site, emphasizing that McDonald's celebrates African- Americans' culture yearlong, is one of the top three sites visited on Burrell also set up youth marketing and healthcare units in 2005, and did research such as the "Moms Report" exploring differences between African-American and non-African-American mothers.


Burrell was the only black agency in 2005 to sponsor the Yankelovich Multicultural Monitor, enabling the agency to join Yankelovich researchers in doing presentations to marketers like American Express Co. The Yankelovich report divides African-Americans into six subsegments including youthful "emulators," a significant category because African-Americans tend to be youthful trendsetters across ethnicities, leading the way in areas like tricking out cars.

Ms. Ferguson says her son, a 20-year-old student who embodies the emulator demographic, "has no trunk space because it's full of subwoofers and stuff to support those electronics." The current trend: Add one PlayStation to a car's headrest for backseat passengers, and another to the dashboard for the driver.

contributing: alice z. cuneo and jack neff