Born to Transform

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

started out as a cub copywriter with Wade Advertising in Chicago. He next joined Leo Burnett, and Foote, Cone & Belding in London. In 1968 he returned to the U.S. as a copywriter, then copy supervisor, for Needham, Harper & Steers. During his travels, Burrell kept honing his own business plan and learned far more than just the ABCs of advertising. “I paid attention to aspects of running the business that would be of some help to me later on,” he says.

Finally, 10 years after entering the industry, Burrell opened Burrell Advertising. “We had no secretary, one telephone, and three old desks, which we painted red, green, and orange,” he remembers. “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.” Burrell’s prudence helped the firm stay afloat through a rocky beginning. Six months passed before the company’s first steady piece of business — McDonald’s — came on board with a $3,000 month retainer.

Over the years Burrell Advertising staked a claim on the African American market, specializing in developing creative advertising for companies eager to penetrate this target group. “In the early days, we simply showed [black] people as they were in realistic portrayals,” Burrell recalls. “We depicted them as families that had lives, loves, passions, and emotions. We showed people doing things such as going to church. The response was enormous, simply because we had not seen ourselves in a positive setting. It gave people a wonderful feeling about the products being advertised as well as an affection for the companies delivering those messages.”

But by the late ’80s, as more firms — black and white — started vying for African American consumer dollars, it wasn’t enough to show black people doing positive things. Greater competition led to greater creative pressures. There was also a phenomenon emerging largely as a result of the frenzy surrounding hip-hop culture, which caused a shift in trendsetting patterns. Suddenly, blacks became the new “in” crowd, and their white counterparts, as well as other groups, started looking to them for clues about the latest happenings in language, fashion, sports, and entertainment. Being black became en vogue, and The Group, which changed its name in 1992 from Burrell Advertising to Burrell Communications Group to reflect its wide range of new marketing services, was poised to benefit.

What’s in a name?
“Urban” was the new buzzword that came on the scene in the mid-’90s. It was a term that began to mean anything African American related, but “that’s not how we saw it,” says McGhee Williams, The Group’s managing director of marketing innovation. “We wanted to take it a step further because we felt urban, by definition, refers to a geography and we’re marketing to people.”

To distinguish itself from competitors and to better leverage its expertise in the target market group of the moment, The Group coined the phrase “Yurban” to describe an influential group of consumers comprised of people ages 12 to

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