2007: Thomas J. Burrell

2007 Pub­lic­ity Club of Chicago Life­time Achieve­ment Hon­oree:
Thomas J. Bur­rell

Con­grat­u­la­tions to this year’s Life­time Achieve­ment Award recip­i­ent Thomas J. Burrell.

Thomas J. Bur­rell, founder and chair­man emer­i­tus of Bur­rell, one of the nation’s lead­ing African-American owned full-service com­mu­ni­ca­tions agen­cies, is a mar­ket­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tions pioneer.

This Chicago native set the stan­dard for effec­tively reach­ing African-American con­sumers by cre­at­ing adver­tis­ing, par­tic­u­larly in tele­vi­sion, that accu­rately reflected their val­ues, lifestyles and aspirations.

Coin­ing the phrase, “Black peo­ple are not dark-skinned white peo­ple,” he has been a leader and change agent in one of the most impor­tant move­ments in mar­ket­ing: the move from mass mar­ket­ing to more effec­tive tar­geted marketing.

Mr. Bur­rell and his team con­vinced McDonald’s and later Coca-Cola, two major tele­vi­sion adver­tis­ers, that this medium could be used to more effec­tively reach the black con­sumer mar­ket. The TV ads depict­ing black “pos­i­tive real­ism” proved to have an extra­or­di­nary effect on the seg­ment with­out “turn­ing off” white view­ers. This changed the face of tele­vi­sion adver­tis­ing, because in many instances the ads proved to be as pop­u­lar with white audi­ences as the pri­mary target.

Mr. Burrell’s rep­u­ta­tion for break­ing bar­ri­ers in the indus­try began in 1961, while he was still an under­grad­u­ate stu­dent at Roo­sevelt Uni­ver­sity. He became the first African-American to work at a Chicago adver­tis­ing agency when Wade Advertising’s man­age­ment made the deci­sion to hire him as a mail­room clerk. That was the only open­ing he needed. He used the oppor­tu­nity to learn as much as he could about the indus­try and the agency’s busi­ness. The young Mr. Bur­rell found a way to share his cre­ative ideas with Wade’s cre­ative direc­tor. This encounter quickly won him a junior copy­writer posi­tion, assigned to the Robin Hood All-Purpose Flour and Alka-Seltzer accounts. After three and a half years, Mr. Bur­rell moved on to a copy­writ­ing posi­tion at Leo Bur­nett, became a copy super­vi­sor at the Lon­don office of Foote Cone & Beld­ing, and later a cre­ative super­vi­sor at Need­ham Harper & Steers in Chicago.

In 1971, his entre­pre­neur­ial spirit emerged and he opened Bur­rell McBain Adver­tis­ing with busi­ness part­ner Emmett McBain and one assis­tant. The fledg­ling agency had lit­tle cap­i­tal, but con­sid­er­able tal­ent. McDonald’s, the agency’s first major client, came aboard in 1972, and Coca-Cola soon followed.

Since 1971, the agency has expe­ri­enced steady growth, and its client ros­ter con­sists of McDonald’s, Proc­ter & Gam­ble, Toy­ota, Gen­eral Mills, Ver­i­zon, Mar­riott Inter­na­tional, and Lexus.

In 2005 Mr. Bur­rell received the industry’s high­est award when the Amer­i­can Adver­tis­ing Fed­er­a­tion inducted him into the esteemed Adver­tis­ing Hall of Fame. Another true tes­ta­ment to the Agency’s suc­cess was the honor of hav­ing 30 years of Coca-Cola adver­tis­ing, pro­duced by Bur­rell, rec­og­nized for its his­tor­i­cal and anthro­po­log­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance when, in 2003, that body of work was entered into the archives of the Library of Congress.

The Chicago adver­tis­ing com­mu­nity hon­ored Mr. Bur­rell as “Adver­tis­ing Per­son of the Year” for 1985–86 with the cov­eted Albert Lasker Award for life­time achieve­ment in adver­tis­ing. In 1990, he received the Mis­souri Honor Medal for Dis­tin­guished Ser­vice in Jour­nal­ism from the Uni­ver­sity of Mis­souri School of Jour­nal­ism. Adver­tis­ing Age named him one of the “50 Who Made a Dif­fer­ence” in its Spring 1995 spe­cial issue, “50 Years of TV Adver­tis­ing.” In its 1999 spe­cial issue, “The Adver­tis­ing Cen­tury,” Adver­tis­ing Age des­ig­nated him one of the “Top 100 Adver­tis­ing Peo­ple” who have shaped the course of adver­tis­ing history.

Well-known and highly respected in the mar­ket­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tions com­mu­nity, Mr. Bur­rell is a for­mer mem­ber of the Amer­i­can Adver­tis­ing Fed­er­a­tion (AAF) Board of Direc­tors. He is a for­mer co-chair of the AAF Foundation’s Stand­ing Com­mit­tee on Diver­sity and the AAF Board Task­force on Diver­sity and Mul­ti­cul­tural Adver­tis­ing. He is a for­mer director-at-large for the Ad Coun­cil, Inc. and has served on the National Adver­tis­ing Review Board, the Amer­i­can Asso­ci­a­tion of Adver­tis­ing Agen­cies (AAAA) Com­mit­tee on Agency Man­age­ment and Gov­ern­ment Rela­tions, and on the 1991–1992 AAAA National Board of Direc­tors. He is a past chair­man of the Chicago Coun­cil of the AAAA. He is a mem­ber of the Advi­sory Coun­cil of Howard University’s John H. John­son School of Com­mu­ni­ca­tions. Stu­dents learn about adver­tis­ing careers through the school’s Thomas J. Bur­rell Chap­ter of the AAF.

In addi­tion to all of the indus­try awards and recog­ni­tions, Mr. Bur­rell has been rec­og­nized by many local orga­ni­za­tions includ­ing Rain­bow PUSH, A.B.L.E, N’Digo Mag­a­zine and the DuS­able Museum, just to name a few.

Mr. Bur­rell retired in 2003, and serves as a con­sul­tant to the Agency that bears his name. He refers to him­self as, not retired, but, “re-wired”. He cur­rently serves on the Board of the Chicago Light­house for the Blind, and is pur­su­ing his pas­sion as a jazz vocalist.

The first time he ever per­formed on stage as a vocal­ist was three years ago, at the age of 63. It started with his enroll­ment in a jazz vocal­ist class with David Bloom and Spi­der Saloff at the Bloom School of Jazz. The class cul­mi­nated in a Sat­ur­day after­noon live per­for­mance at Chicago’s fabled Jazz Show­case. From there, he had the good for­tune to sing with the pop­u­lar and highly-respected Gen­tle­men of Leisure band. From there, he con­tin­ued to develop with par­tic­i­pa­tion in a Butch Stew­art musi­cal review at North­west­ern University’s Pick-Staiger Audi­to­rium, and then var­i­ous pri­vate par­ties, open mike nights at local clubs and an appear­ance at ETA’s “Music Mon­day” fol­lowed. He was the fea­tured per­former at ETA’s Novem­ber 13, 2006 Music Mon­day event.

In addi­tion to singing, Mr. Bur­rell writes lyrics and has begun work­ing on a cou­ple of book ideas.