Born to Transform

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

29 who shared the same attitude without regard to ethnicity, background, gender, or location.

“Yurban includes white, Japanese, and French youth,” explains Alma Hopkins, The Group’s managing director of creative operations. “When I’m in Paris, I hear bass music typically played by the brothers here, but there it’s actually the French youth and they’re rapping in French.” The core of this group, however, consists of African American youth between the ages of 18 to 24 “because they really are trendsetters and influencers worldwide,” Williams insists.

Maurice Levy, chairman and CEO of the French agency Publicis, agrees. He says one of the major reasons his firm purchased a 49% stake in The Group in 2000 was because of The Group’s expertise in the African American market as well as the yurban arena. “The potential for growth is not limited to the African American community,” says Levy. “I think the young urban [market is] very close to this segment and we wanted our firm to grow through youth marketing as well.”

The Group has carved out two distinct areas of expertise: the African American market, valued at $572.1 billion, and the Yurban market, valued at $300 billion. According to Steven Sturm, vice president of Marketing for Toyota Motor Sales, USA, The Group’s extensive offerings beat out 14 other contenders.

A play for profits
Walking through the halls of The Group offers a refreshing change from the typical corporate environment. The office, located on Chicago’s North Michigan Avenue, seems more like a playground than the headquarters for one of today’s largest black-owned advertising agen
cies. There are toys everywhere that actually looked played with. A basketball hoop graces one end of a hallway, and many of the employees use giant blue, red, and yellow relaxation balls in place of chairs (including Burrell). Various types of music — from the mellowest jazz to hardcore rap — emerge from the cubicles. And just when you think there’s a lull, a shriek erupts from someone with a new idea. “Screams are good,” says Account Coordinator LaJeune Brown. “That means the creative juices are flowing.”

Not surprisingly, there is no dress code at The Group. The only thing the head honcho enforces is that employees wear something on their feet — sneakers or sandals will do. And headgear of any kind is welcome. “Whatever works,” laughs Burrell. “A good rule of thumb is that you allow people to do things that don’t get in the way of others. People spend three-quarters of their lives at work or thinking about work so it ought to be a joyous thing. We also like to allow a certain noise factor, and it’s nice to have a cross current of different music going on.”

Sounds more like a middle-aged parent’s nightmare than a workplace, and Burrell is 63. Is he serious? Absolutely. And the freedom of expression that employees enjoy offers an environment that is hard to find anywhere else. So people generally stay on board, or return if they do leave. In fact, The Group’s voluntary turnover rate is less

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