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.