At the first Black Enterprise Entrepreneurs Conference held at Disney’s Contemporary Resort in 1996, BE introduced the A.G. Gaston Lifetime Achievement Award – its highest honor for entrepreneurial excellence – by presenting the honor to advertising industry visionary Thomas J. Burrell, founder and CEO of Burrell Communications Group. The reason: Burrell’s “reputation for sharing his knowledge and expertise [as well as the fact] that he is an inspirational leader of the African American community.” His stellar achievements were found to be in keeping with the tradition of the legendary business trailblazer in which the award is named.
Burrell became known as the “Dean of Black Advertising” after gaining a track record for breaking barriers within the media industry. He started his advertising career as a copywriter for Chicago-based Wade Advertising and then Leo Burnett in the early 1960s. By 1967, he took a position in Foot Cone & Belding’s London Office, and when he returned to American shores a year later he quickly rose to become a copy supervisor at Needham Harper & Steers.
In 1971, he decided to launch an agency with a partner, who would depart a few years later, and transformed it into an advertising powerhouse.
“We had no secretary, one telephone, and three old desks, which we painted red, green and orange,” he told BE of the firm’s humble beginnings in a 2002 interview. “I didn’t go to the bank to borrow a whole lot of money to open a fancy space. The business wasn’t based on cosmetics; it was based on substance.”
That philosophy and practice laid the foundation for the agency to snare A-list clients like Coca-Cola USA and McDonald’s Corp., over the next decade. Burrell’s secret sauce: Industry observers credited him with the creation of “positive realism,” developing targeted campaigns that reflected relevant, authentic portrayals of African Americans in their use of clients’ products. As Burrell reportedly said: “Black people are not dark-skinned white people.”
The agency’s creativity and dynamism would be rewarded with business from companies such as Verizon, Nabisco, Maxwell House Coffee and Procter & Gamble. In fact, Burrell Communications’ work for P&G’s Crest toothpaste brand became the first major packaged goods account to target African American consumers.
In 1985, BE reported that the agency won its first general-market account for Martell Cognac, using the trademark slogan: “I assume you drink Martell.” The tagline was originally created a few years earlier for the black consumer market but was found to be much more effective in connecting with all consumers than themes developed by the brand’s mainstream agency. That successful campaign, along with others that year, led Burrell Communications to generate billings of $50 million, becoming the nation’s largest black-owned agency.
Even as billings and accolades grew – Burrell Communications has been a perennial on the BE ADVERTISING list and, during his tenure as CEO, named BE Advertising Agency of the Year in 2002 – the firm’s intrepid leader relentlessly fought for industry-wide diversity and general-market opportunities for African American agencies. He also became a powerful advocate and mentor for a generation of minority marketers, advertising execs and entrepreneurs.
By the beginning of the new millennium, he sold 49% of his firm to French agency Publicis Groupe to fund growth and stay competitive as majority firms began to encroach on the multicultural consumer market. When he retired in 2004, however, he sold 51% of the firm to his managers and current Co-CEOs Fay Ferguson and McGhee Williams Osse, maintaining his commitment that the house that Burrell built would retain majority black ownership. Today, Burrell Communications ranks No. 3 on the BE ADVERTISING List with $35 million in gross revenue.
Even in retirement, this Advertising Hall of Fame inductee continues his campaign to uplift African Americans. In 2010, he wrote the book, Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority, as a vehicle to illustrate how words and images have been manipulated to reinforce negative views of African Americans nationwide – and similar impressions blacks hold about themselves. Using his book as a platform, he developed The Resolution Project to promote intra-racial dialogue and a community-based, new media “stop the brainwash” campaign.
As part of our countdown to the Black Enterprise Entrepreneurs Conference, which will be held in Columbus, Ohio May 14-17, our editors are developing a series of profiles of all recipients of the A.G. Gaston Lifetime Achievement Award – BE‘s highest honor for entrepreneurial excellence – for the past two decades. This year’s award will be presented at our BE 100s Awards Gala on Friday, May 16.