Monday, June 18, 2018
  • Thursday, Oct. 12, 2017
Tom Burrell Reflects On Being 1st African American Inducted Into One Club Creative Hall of Fame
Tom Burrell
Founder of Burrell Communications shares insights into his career, mentorship, inclusion and diversity
  • --

While induction into the One Club of Creativity’s Creative Hall of Fame is a time for celebration--even more so when you’re the first African American to ever achieve such an honor--Tom Burrell, founder and chairman emeritus of Burrell Communications, can’t help but reflect on what might have NOT been, fully realizing that talent isn’t enough to gain success, particularly if you’re a person of color.

“You have to get the chance to hit a home run,” said Burrell. “Who knows how many potential Hall of Famers have never had a chance to get up to the plate? I got that opportunity.”

Burrell teamed with business partner Emmett McBain to launch Burrell McBain Advertising--which is now Burrell Communications--in 1971. By understanding and highlighting the positive aspects of black American culture, Tom Burrell changed the face of American advertising. A collection of Burrell’s advertisements for Coca-Cola is archived at the Library of Congress for its cultural and historical significance. 

Credited for setting the standard for effectively reaching African American consumers by creating advertising that accurately reflected their values, lifestyle and aspirations, particularly through television, Burrell coined the phrase, “Black people are not dark-skinned white people.”  Burrell served as a leader and change agent in one of the most important movements in marketing: the move from mass marketing to more effective targeted marketing. He left the day-to-day operations of his agency in 2005.

Burrell got his initial opportunity in the ad biz--his first at-bat in baseball parlance--at Wade Advertising in 1961, the third or fourth largest agency in Chicago at the time. “The management group decided they should look for a Negro to work there,” recalled Burrell. “No black people got in at that time--the only ones who came into the office were the sales reps for Ebony magazine, one of whom happened to know me and heard me running my mouth about wanting to be a copywriter, an ambition that was planted in my head by a high school counselor, all because I scored high on an aptitude test for persuasion and creativity. When the office manager at Wade asked the Ebony guys if they knew of anyone, my name came up. They couldn’t even find another black candidate.” 

Burrell got a job working in the mail room at $50 a week. “I found out that hiring me was an upper management decision. The chairman of the board came back from his vacation home for a meeting to decide whether or not to hire me.”

Burrell wound up staying at Wade for three-and-a-half years. He described the shop as “not a cool, hip place, mostly brown shoes and white socks, creatively conservative...but I didn’t feel a single thread of resistance or friction there. It was one of the most welcoming places I was ever at. I was a writer there within six months.”

Next came two-and-a-half years at Leo Burnett, Chicago, working for the likes of Pillsbury, Swanson frozen foods and new Philip Morris products. Burrell then moved to London to become a copy supervisor at FCB’s office there. He later returned to Chicago as a creative supervisor at Needham Harper & Steers before going on to create what became Burrell Communications.

“I had the advantage of eleven years of experience at top ad agencies, from the mail room up, looking at how an agency works holistically,” related Burrell. “I wasn’t just dealing with my area of interest, writing, but also media, accounting, operations. It helped me when I was bitten by the entrepreneurial bug.”

Resistance to mentoring
While he admired the work of many, including colleagues as he was moving up the industry ladder, Burrell never had a mentor. In fact, he resisted mentorship--for better or worse. “I had a bit of a chip on my shoulder,” observed Burrell. “I mistakenly shrugged off those who attempted to mentor me. I rejected them because I didn’t want to be anybody’s boy. I saw other people hooking up with mentors but I didn’t like that ‘Dr. Livingston, I presume” kind of thing, people coming in to save the poor black kid. My feelings weren’t rational but they were real. There were people I worked with who were important to me. There were people I didn’t work with who were still very encouraging. But I was never one for being mentored.”

Of course, he might have been receptive under different circumstances--or for that matter to an offer from a high-profile person. “The first day I worked at Burnett, I sat across the table from Leo Burnett,” remembered Burrell. “I suppose if Leo had said he wanted to mentor me, I would have accepted.”

Burrell then conjectured, “My career might have gone a different direction if I made myself available for mentoring. I don’t know what direction that would have been. I might have never started my own agency.”

Among the colleagues Burrell has tremendous respect for is David Kennedy of Wieden+Kennedy fame. While they never worked directly together, Kennedy and Burrell were at Leo Burnett at the same time. Upon his induction last month into the One Club Creative Hall of Fame in New York, Burrell received a message from Kennedy. “He wrote me a beautiful congratulatory letter, expressing regard for me,” said Burrell. “His words meant a lot to me.”

As for the brave new world of advertising and branding, Burrell noted that “the whole structure of the ad agency business has come loose in a lot of ways. They don’t have the commission system the way it used to be. So many advertisers don’t understand the value of advertising and tend to commoditize it--’Do it at my price or we’ll find somebody else who will.’ Only agencies like Wieden+Kennedy and BBDO are exempt from this.”

Burrell also observed that it seems that the goal of advertising in so many cases is “just to get attention, which means that advertising is becoming less strategic and more attention-getting. People are fighting for attention across 500 channels, platforms, podcasts.” 

In terms of racial diversity, Burrell said not enough change is taking place. “There’s a difference between diversity and inclusion,” he pointed out. “Inclusion is a prerequisite to diversity. You have to include different kinds of people in order to get diverse input and points of view. Inclusion is something that needs to be worked on.”

Burrell feels fortunate to have been included, which gets back to why he views the One Club Hall of Fame honor with humility. “You can talk as much as you want about meritocracy, that you accomplished something based on your own talent. But you need to understand the value of being at the right place at the right time. Favorable circumstances come to play for someone to be successful. If you don’t realize that, then you are blind and insensitive. Had I been five years older, been somewhere else other than Chicago, I might have never gotten my big break in advertising. Instead of Hall of Fame recognition, I could be retiring from the post office. One never knows. One has to be most grateful when preparation and opportunity meet. You have to be prepared. But without inclusion, you have a lot of people who are prepared but never get the opportunity to be successful.”