Burrell, Thomas J. 1939–

views updated May 17 2018

Thomas J. Burrell 1939

Business executive

At a Glance

Aptitude Test Triggered Career

Broke New Ground in Advertising


A major figure in American marketing and advertising, Thomas Burrell heads a leading marketing communications firm that provides advertising, public relations, consumer promotions, and direct marketing services for many top American companies. In 1996 Black Enterprise ranked Burrell Communications as sixteenth on its annual listing of the Top 100 Black Businesses in the United States, and as of 1998 his company was generating an estimated $ 168 million in annual billings and employing 162 people in offices in Chicago, New York, and Atlanta. Among the companies Burrell has provided, marketing campaigns for are Coca-Cola, McDonalds, Proctor & Gamble, Ford, Pillsbury, and many more. During his career he has also helped spark the growth of numerous start-up companies and played leadership roles in organizations such as the American Association of Advertising Agencies (AAAA).

Burrell made his name in advertising by creating one of the first agencies to specialize in niche marketingin his case, the targeting of ads and commercials to black audiences. As Laurence Minsky and Emily Thornton Calvo wrote in How to Succeed in Advertising When All You Have Is Talent, Burrell was one of the first to bring big agency experience and sophisticated tactics to segmented marketing. Soon after opening his own shop in 1971, Burrell initiated a virtual revolution in advertising for African Americans by casting them in roles that had previously been off limits to them. We were accustomed to seeing ourselves in the mass media as either exaggerated, acceptable exceptions to the rule, or as welfare recipients, criminals, and the downtrodden, said Burrell in How to Succeed.The mass media was missing the whole group of blacks who lived normal lives and had emotional, poignant kinds of events happening to them. His ability to reach black audiences has been heralded by many clients over the years. Tom has an incredible sense of marketing, as well as incredible sensitivity to the African-American culture, noted David Green, a marketing executive at McDonalds Corporation, in a 1996 issue of Advertising Age.

Since he opened his own business, Burrell has expanded his net to white markets with many critically acclaimed and award-winning print ads and television commercials. As a result he has built up his communications

At a Glance

Born March 18, 1939 in Chicago, IL; son of Evelyn Burrell and Thomas Burrell; married to]oli Burrell; three children. Education : Roosevelt Univ., Chicago, S.A., English, 1961.

Career: Mailroom clerk, Wade Advertising Agency, Chicago, 1964, copywriter trainee, 1964; copywriter, Leo Burnett Co., Chicago, 1964-67; copywriter, Foote Cone & Belding, London, 1967-68; copy supervisor, Needham Harper & Steers, 1968-71; started own advertising agency with Emmert McBain (Burreli McBain Advertising), 1971; houghtout co-founder McBain and changed name of agency to Burrell Communications Group, 1974; has created print, TV, and other ad campaigns for Pillsbury, Coca-Cola, Proctor & Gamble, McDonalds, Ford, and many others.

Memberships: Sits on many boards, councils, and committees including: Chicago Urban League; Chicago United; Chicago Lighthouse for the Blind; Roosevelt Univ.; Howard Univ. School of Communications; Lyric Opera of Chicago; Thurgood Marshall Scholarship Fund; Amer. Advertising Fed.; Ad Council, Inc.; Commercial Club; Executives Club; Economic Club.

Awards and honors: Clio Award, (Street Song Coca-Cola), 1978; Gold Awd, U.S. TV Commercials Festival (Double Dutch McDonalds), 1982; Clio Awd, McDonalds; Advertising Person of the Year, Chicago Advertising Club, 1985, 1986; MO Honor Medal for Distinguished Service in Journalism, Univ. of MO School of Journalism, 1990; Grand Effie for Partnership Award, 1994; cited as one of 50 Who Made a Difference in 50 Years of TV Advertising issue, Advertising Age, Spring 1995; Chicago Lighthouse for the Blinds Lifetime Achievement Awd,1998; OToole Award for Creative Excellence in Multicultural Advertising, Amer. Association of Advertising Agencies, 1998; Albert Lasker Award for Lifetime Achievement in Advertising; numerous other awards for TV & and radio commercials, and print ads.

Addresses: Business Burrell Communications Group, 20 North Michigan Ave., Chicago, IL 60602, 312-443-8600.

organization into one of the largest advertising agencies in the United States. Currently, Burrell Communications is the 88th largest agency in the United States and the tenth largest in Chicago, which is home to many of the countrys most notable ad agencies.

Aptitude Test Triggered Career

The son of a tavern owner and a beautician, Burrell began plotting his future success while still a teenager attending Englewood High School in Chicagos South Side in the 1950s. Recognizing that his school had limitations, he engineered his transfer to another school that he felt would provide a better learning environment. After switching to Parker High School he began associating with students who seemed to be on the success trackthose aspiring to become doctors, lawyers, and engineers. He also enrolled in a course called Careers that was designed to help students determine what future vocations might be right for them. When Burrell scored high on the artistic and persuasive categories of the test, his teacher suggested that perhaps copywriting would be a good match for his skills. Although Burrell had never heard of the occupation before, he embraced the idea of this future career with passion and began studying ads in magazines to try and glean the keys to their effectiveness.

Roadblocks awaiting Burrell in his choice of career became apparent to him after he enrolled at Roosevelt College in Chicago as an English major and advertising minor. In How to Succeed Burrell recounted that one of his teachers told him he was crazy to pursue a career in advertising because there were virtually no blacks 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.

Despite the potential resistance he faced, Burrell refused to be deterred from his quest to become a copywriter. He broke into advertising at the bottom of the food chain, managing to get a job in the mailroom at Wade Advertising in Chicago for fifty dollars a week in 1960 and thus becoming the agencys only black employee. Burrell made it clear early on that he was destined for higher things. He did some research on his own for the then problem-plagued account of Alka-Seltzer and presented it to the creative director, who was impressed enough to make him a copywriter trainee. Soon Burrell was writing for the Alka-Seltzer, Robin Hood flour, and Toni Home Permanent accounts.

Attending an intensive one-year program in Advanced Advertising Studies at Northwestern University had a double benefit for Burrell. While honing his advertising skills, he also made connections with other agency professionals that helped him land a job at Chicagos Leo Burnett Advertising. After a year there working on Pillsbury cake and frosting mix accounts, Burrell decided to literally broaden his horizons by traveling to Europe. He stayed for a while in Paris before moving to London to work on the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) account (which later became British Airways) for the London office of Foote Cone Belding.

A year later Burrell was back in Chicago with Needham Harper Speers, where he worked on the Betty Crocker accounts. That was the best agency experience of my career, noted Burrell in How to Succeed.I learned about marketing strategy and strategy-based advertising, and I learned the importance of basing your advertising concepts on a unique set of ideas, he continued. Burrells developing talent earned him a promotion to copy supervisor at Needham, and gave him the confidence to form his own agency with Emmett McBain in 1971. I was a married with a baby, noted Burrell in Advertising Age.It wasnt the time to do it, but I did it anyway, he added. Burrell figured that the only way he could get business from big companies was to position himself as a provider of a unique type of advertising. He also stated in Advertising Age, Since there was no need for them to fire their well-established, large agencies to come and be clients of this startup, two-man operation, I had to come up with an angle. Thats how I came to niche marketing. Burrell and McBain decided that they could build their business by offering advertising that was customized for black audiences. 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 in How to Succeed.

It was rough going for Burrell McBain Advertising in its first year, and the stress caused Burrell to lose fifty pounds as his fledgling agency struggled to get clients. 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 told Advertising Age. Burrell got his first piece of business after six months of huntinga public relations account with a black nightclub that paid a $1000-a-monthbut that was soon lost. He also dealt with some humiliation due to racism in the early days, such as when he was forced to eat in the kitchens of restaurants in Lynchburg, Tennessee, while working on Brown-Formans Jack Daniels liquor account.

Broke New Ground in Advertising

Burrell took a major step into the big time by winning an account with the McDonalds restaurant chain in 1972 with a $3000-a-month retainer. As he proved his ability to market to black audiences, Coca-Cola came on board for its African American advertising in 1973. When McBain decided to leave the agency the following year, Burrell became sole owner and changed its name to Burrell Advertising. Before long he was becoming known as a revolutionary in the world of advertising with his ads that offered much more realistic and upbeat scenes of black Americans than had ever been offered before, especially on television. Before the 1970s, most blacks in commercials had largely played menial roles. Following a philosophy that he coined positive realism, according to Advertising Age, Burrells television spots celebrated African American culture, lifestyle, and values. His big breakthrough came in 1976 when he created his Street Song commercial for Coca-Cola, which depicted urban black kids singing a cappella about the soft drink. Street Song was a turning point on many levels, claimed Advertising Age.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, the article continued. The Street Song spot won Burrell his first Clio Award, the most prestigious honor for television advertising in the industry.

In 1979 annual billings for Burrell Communications topped the $10-million mark for the first time, and two years later billings had doubled to $20 million. From 1974 to 1986 the agency experienced a growth of 15-20%, according to Advertising Age, while blossoming into a full-service marketing communications company. As his business continued to boom Burrell opened a new office in Atlanta in order to expand its service for Coca-Cola. Another high point for Burrell came in 1984 when corporate giant Proctor & Gamble put him in charge of its African American advertising for Crest toothpaste. Two years later he created the first public relations division in his company and his annual billings topped $50 million for the first time.

Creative high-water marks for Burrell during the 1980s, included his agencys I Assume You Drink Martell campaign for Martell Cognac, as well as his Double Dutch television commercials for McDonalds that won a Gold award at the U.S. Television Commercials Festival in 1982. Then his agency experienced a downturn later in the 1980s that reflected industry-wide cutting back on advertising budgets and increased competition over target marketing accounts. These new pressures provided a learning experience for Burrell, forcing him to streamline his organization in order to become more cost effective.

In recent years Burrell has often voiced his regret that many companies continue to see his agency as a minority marketing specialist, and he has striven to diversify his operation and move away from marketing to only black audiences. He took a major step in this direction in the mid 1990s by acquiring DFA Communications, a New York-based general market and direct marketing agency whose clients included such giants as Citibank and the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP). This acquisition put his agency in the running to surpass Uniworld as the largest African American-owned advertising agency in the United States. By this time Burrell was also providing relationship marketing and consulting services for consumer and business-to-business clients with his Burrell Yagnik Relationship Marketing company in New York City. In the 1990s Burrell has been on the lookout to acquire other companies as well that could help him tap into Hispanic marketing, sales promotion, event marketing, and sports marketing.

In the mid 1960s Burrell was diagnosed with macular degeneration, a disorder of the eyes that impairs central vision. His indomitable will to forge ahead despite all obstacles has enabled him to lead a normal life with this affliction. Over the years Burrell has been actively involved with helping the plight of those with vision problems, especially as an active supporter of the Chicago Lighthouse for the Blind. His dedication to this cause earned him the Chicago Lighthouse for the Blinds Lifetime Achievement Award in 1998.

Today Burrells organization provides advertising and marketing services to a wide range of companies, including Bell Atlantic, HBO, Mobil, and Nationwide Insurance. While Burrell rarely writes copy anymore, he remains actively involved in concept development and in engineering the expansion of his firm into new realms. It is unlikely he will be deterred in his efforts by whatever hurdles lay ahead. As he told Advertising Age about the advertising business today, Its harder, tougher. Now, its more work-oriented. Its not as much fun, but its more challenging. And for the few of us who get a kick out of challenges thats a good thing.



Minsky, Laurence, and Emily Thornton Calvo, How to Succeed in Advertising When All You Have Is Talent, NTC Publishing Group, 1994, pp. 118-135.


Advertising Age, June 3, 1996, pp. C1-C15.

Adweek, March 30, 1998, pp. 72-75.

Adweek Midwest Edition, December 4, 1995, p. 2.

Black Enterprise, March 1996, p. 18; November 1996, p. 69.

Jet, December 18, 1995, p. 58; July 8, 1996, p. 12.

NDigo, June 13-26, 1996, pp. 6-8.

USA Today, August 19, 1987, p. B8.


Additional information for this profile was obtained from publicity materials provided by Burrell Communications, Inc.

Ed Decker

Burrell, Tom

views updated May 18 2018

Tom Burrell


Advertising executive

Tom Burrell was first directed toward a career in advertising by a high school aptitude test. However, it was his own independent spirit, creativity, and courage that guided him from a working-class childhood on the south side of Chicago to a position as chairman and chief executive officer of the company that would bear his name, Burrell Communications. Though for much of his life, Burrell was unsure of his own abilities, he not only worked his way up from the mailroom to the head office, but he also pioneered an advertising philosophy that acknowledged the economic power of youth and communities of color, and showed an understanding of the unique cultural characteristics of both.

Thomas Jason Burrell was born on March 18, 1939, in Chicago, Illinois. His father Thomas was an entrepreneur who had come to the large Midwestern city from Tennessee during the 1920s. Because he had little faith in banks, he did not deposit his money in bank accounts; instead, he saved it on his own. When many banks failed in 1929 at the beginning of the Great Depression that would ravage the country throughout the 1930s, Thomas Burrell Sr. did not lose his money as so many others did. With cash on hand, he found himself able to make money by buying buildings while prices were low. Soon he owned and operated his own tavern, a "blues joint," which featured famous musicians such as Muddy Waters and B.B. King.

Young Thomas' mother Evelyn had also come to Chicago from the South. One of ten children, she had left her family in Alabama, following her other sisters and brothers who had sought opportunity in the North. Evelyn Burrell had attended beauty school, and while she cared for her children, she worked as a beautician in her home.

Created Jobs as a Child

Tom Burrell spent much of his childhood working. He found many ways to earn extra money, developing the creativity that would later bring success to his advertising agency. An aunt who worked at a soap factory brought home damaged bars of soap for free and young Tom sold them door to door. He also shined shoes, set up pins in bowling alleys, washed windows, and rode public transit mornings and evenings to deliver newspapers before and after school.

Burrell's experience at school was often difficult. Though he liked his classes when his teachers were interesting and attentive, he often found himself the victim of bullies in the schoolyard. He felt that he did not fit in and, in an effort to keep out of trouble, he stayed apart, watching and learning. This role of observer taught him a lot about human nature, and he would put that knowledge to work later in his adult life and career.

When Burrell was a teenager, one of his friends was killed while fleeing police in a stolen car. This tragic event affected him deeply, in part because it showed him his own possible future. In his junior year of high school Burrell decided to put his future on a better track. He changed high schools, switching from Englewood High to Parker High, a more academic school with fewer tough kids. The decision was his alone. He had grown used to making his own decisions about his life, because his mother had always treated him with respect for his opinions. He had learned early that if he really thought he could do something, his mother would encourage him to try it.

It was at Parker High School that Burrell took the aptitude test that would affect the course of his life. The test determined that Burrell was "artistic and persuasive," and a teacher suggested that writing copy for an advertising company might be a good career for someone with those qualities. The idea interested him, and, with characteristic determination, he set his sights on a career in advertising.

Struggled for Success in College

College was the first step, and after his graduation from high school in 1957, Burrell entered Chicago's Roosevelt University. College was not easy for him. He had little guidance when he entered the university, and his first year he took a very heavy course load and joined both the staff of the college newspaper and an advertising fraternity. By his second semester he was so stressed from work and activities that he began to have health problems. He related in an interview with Contemporary Black Biography (CBB ) that when one of his advisors told him bluntly that he was "just not intelligent enough to graduate from college, " he became discouraged and left school to work at a paint factory.

However, Burrell hated factory work and decided to give the university another try. More experienced now, and having sampled the sort of job he might get without a degree, he began to do better in school, getting As and Bs. He graduated from Roosevelt University in 1962.

During his senior year, Burrell had gone to work in the mailroom of Wade Advertising, a Chicago agency. Within a year, he had been promoted to writing advertising copy on such well-known accounts as Alka Seltzer and Robin Hood Flour. He continued to move up in the field, getting jobs in other prestigious agencies, and even living in London for a year working for the agency of Foote Cone and Belding. Even as he worked at some of the best agencies in advertising, Burrell knew that he was preparing himself to start his own business. Like his father, he did not want to spend his life working for someone else. As he performed his job, he constantly observed and learned how every aspect of an advertising agency worked.

Finally, in 1971, he was ready. He left his job as copy supervisor in the Chicago office of the New York firm of Needham Harper & Steers to open his own agency with a partner, Emmett McBain. Burrell McBain, as it was called then, decided to focus on a largely ignored audience, African-American consumers. One of their earliest successes was a black urban Marlboro man for a Phillip Morris tobacco advertising campaign.

At a Glance...

Born Thomas Jason Burrell on March 18, 1939, in Chicago, Illinois; married Barbara Aldridge, 1968 (divorced 1979); married Joli Owens, 1989 (divorced 2005); children (first marriage): Alexandra, Jason. Education: Roosevelt University, BA, English, 1962.

Career: Wade Advertising, Chicago, copywriter, 1961-64; Leo Burnett Company, Chicago, copywriter, 1964-67; Foote Cone and Belding, London, copy supervisor, 1967-68; Needham Harper & Steers, New York, copy supervisor, 1968-71; Burrell Communications Group, Chicago and Atlanta, founder and chief executive officer, 1971-2004, chairman emeritus, 2004.

Selected memberships: American Advertising Federation Foundation, Standing Committee on Diversity and Taskforce on Diversity and Multi-cultural Advertising; Chicago Lighthouse for the Blind, board of governors, Chicago Urban League, board of directors and Business Advisory Council; Howard University, School of Communications, Advisory Council.

Selected awards: Albert Lasker Award for Lifetime Achievement in Advertising, 1986; University of Missouri School of Journalism Honors Medal for Distinguished Service, 1990; Chicago Lighthouse for the Blind, Lifetime Achievement Award, 1998; Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, Living Legend Award, 2003; American Advertising Federation, Advertising Hall of Fame, 2005.

Addresses: Office Burrell Communications Group, 233 N. Michigan Avenue, Chicago, IL 60602.

Developed Self-Confidence in Business

During the first six months of running his own agency, Burrell had many moments of nervousness and fears of failure. As he had in college, he almost became ill from the stress, but he persevered because he had decided that he needed the independence of running his own business. Even if his advertising agency did not succeed, he determined that he would never return to a corporate advertising job. He had even thought of other businesses he might try, but he did not need to use those ideas. In 1972, after his firm's initial success with Marlboro, Burrell landed the national McDonald's restaurant chain as a client, and, a year later, Coca-Cola. In 1974, McBain left the agency, and the firm name was changed to Burrell Advertising.

Perhaps Burrell's biggest business success was in learning to trust his own skills and intelligence. Having convinced himself by bad school experiences that he was not intelligent, Burrell had felt that he needed other people to help him run his agency. Once he was on his own, however, his confidence in his abilities grew, and the success of his business increased. Burrell told CBB that "it took him many years of success at work to rebuild his confidence after the college advisor's disheartening warning." To guard others against his experience, he told CBB that in the future he made it a point "to advise young African Americans to respect those in authority, but to maintain their belief in themselves."

Burrell's agency continued to prosper and gain new clients, winning awards for some of its innovative commercials. By 1979 Burrell's client billings reached more than $10 million. In 1983 the company opened an office in Atlanta, Georgia, and in 1992 the firm name was changed to Burrell Communications Group and billings approached $100 million. The agency has created successful campaigns for such products targeted specifically at African Americans, including Johnson Products' Afrosheen and Ultrasheen, to brands and services used by everyone, like Verizon, Kmart, Sears, Tide, Crest Toothpaste, and Sprite, among many others.

Though Burrell has always wanted his agency to represent all kinds of products and to appeal to all sorts of people, most advertisers continue to view Burrell Communications as a way to reach youth and urban markets and people of color. Before Burrell entered the business, there were very few people of color in commercials. Those that were seen were usually stereotyped. Burrell's commercials gave a very human face to blacks in advertising, focusing on families and relationships. When Toyota received criticism for another agency's ad that was perceived by many as racist, they turned to Burrell for a more positive campaign. Burrell also invented the advertising term "yurban," a combination of young and urban, that describes an important target market. Burrell advertisements treat their young audience with respect, using humor, music, and honesty to sell products.

In the summer of 2004, Burrell announced his retirement from Burrell Communications. The agency continues to be one of the top advertising companies, and Burrell still maintains a role as chairman emeritus. However, he considers himself, as he told CBB, "more rewired than retired," and continues to try new adventures, such as performing as a singer.



Advertising Age, June 3, 1996, pp. C1-16.

Advertising Age (Midwest Region Edition), June 14, 1999, p. 36.

ADWEEK (Midwest Edition), November 12, 2001, pp. 5-6.

Crain's Illinois Business, Spring 1986, pp. 45-7.

Jet, December 21, 1998, pp. 8-11; July 5, 2004, p. 48.


Burrell Communications Group, www.burrell.com (March 5, 2005).

"Tom Burrell Biography," The History Makers, www.thehistorymakers.com/biography/biography.asp?bioindex=62&category=businessmakers (March 5, 2005).

"Tom Burrell's Cultural Anthropological Route to Hip-Hop Marketing." Ethnographic Solutions, www.ethnographic-solutions.com/pages/tomburrell.htm (March 5, 2005).

"Tom Burrell To Receive Advertising Industry's Highest Honor," Forbes, www.forbes.com/businesswire/feeds/businesswire/2005/01/19/businesswire20050119005663r1.html (March 5, 2005)


Information for this profile was obtained through an interview with Tom Burrell on February 25, 2005.

Tina Gianoulis