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 that accurately reflected their values, lifestyles and aspirations, particularly through television.
Coining the phrase, "Black people are not dark-skinned white people," Burrell 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.
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.
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 Thomas 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. 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.
Over its 34 years, the agency has experienced steady growth, and its client roster consists of McDonald's, Procter & Gamble, Toyota, General Mills, Verizon, Sears, Marriott International, Nielsen Media Research, Bacardi and Lexus.
The Chicago advertising community honored Burrell as "Advertising Person of the Year" for 1985-1986 with the coveted Albert Lasker Award. In 1990 he received the Missouri Honor Medal from the University of Missouri School of Journalism. In 1995 Advertising Age named him one of the "50 Who Made a Difference," and in 1999, 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, Burrell is a member of the American Advertising Federation board of directors. He is a former director-at-large for the Ad Council and has served on the National Advertising Review Board, the American Association of Advertising Agencies (AAAA) Committee on Agency Management and Government Relations, and the AAAA board. He is 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 and namesake of the school¿s Thomas J. Burrell Chapter of the AAF.