Born to Transform

The Burrell Communications Group bursts out of the ad agency box to become bigger, better, and bolder

Do you remember the Transformers craze of 1984? Transformers were a toy lover’s dream: action figures that could magically convert from robots into multifaceted operating vehicles.Hence the popular tag line “more than meets the eye.” The same phrase could describe the Burrell Communications Group, the Chicago-based agency that has, in the three decades since its launch, transformed into a full-service firm with a menu of offerings almost as impressive as its roster of class-A clients. Burrell offers advertising consulting, account planning, peer-to-peer marketing, media placement, promotion direction, public relations and event marketing, and research. It’s a long list of services not typically offered at your average advertising agency, but Burrell Communications is neither typical nor average.

Founded in 1971, the Burrell Communications Group, also known as The Group, is an old sage among black ad agencies, but it has the heart of an upstart. Although it’s third on the list this year in revenues, the firm takes first-place honors for ingenuity, as well as its ability to remain solidly in play despite a game with rules constantly in flux. The Group has received several accolades over the last year, including the Association of American Advertising Agencies’ award for Multicultural Agency of the Year and the Association of National Advertisers’ Multicultural Excellence award for the Verizon Campaign. Add to that the BE Advertising Agency of the Year.

While he welcomes the title, Thomas Burrell, The Group’s founder, chairman, and CEO, admits, “We don’t use the term advertising agency much because we think it’s outdated. It suggests that we limit ourselves to a little box of advertising agency tools to solve client problems — even if the tools aren’t ideal. We are marketing communications specialists. You tell us the problem, and we use the tools to help solve that problem whether they’re in the box or not.”

The Group has remained among the top three on the BE ADVERTISING AGENCIES list from the outset. Despite the challenges posed by a struggling economy, the firm remains strong, as evidenced by its increased billings (a modest 1.2%) and its ability to snag three major clients in 2001 — General Mills, Hewlett-Packard, and Toyota (see Advertising Overview for details). The firm has 24 major clients and its gross revenue of $25 million is more than double what it was a decade ago.

In one form or another, the firm’s success is largely built on its ability to shift approaches to meet the ever-changing needs of clients. Like a Transformer, this strategy appears simple initially. But as we uncovered the many components that make up The Group, we realized that the firm’s constant transformation is anything but simple. And that the people propelling the changes have so much fun in the process makes the story that much more compelling.

How it all began
Burrell credits his success to smart business tactics from day one. “I worked in three advertising agencies before I started a business, and I worked in them understanding that I would one day do this,” he says. In 1961 Burrell

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