Early in his career, Thomas J. Burrell set out to create an advertising firm that exploded myths about black culture, buying power, and brainpower. Now, after helping to redefine the industry and garnering clients like Bacardi, Verizon, Sears, McDonald’s, Toyota, and Nationwide Insurance during his 43 years in the industry, Burrell will step down from his post as chairman and CEO of his Chicago-based firm.
A veritable trinity in black advertising, Fay H. Ferguson, McGhee Williams, and Steve Conner will be Burrell’s new managing partners. They will get an even share of the 51% majority ownership the firm retained after forming a strategic partnership in 1999 with French global advertising and communications agency network Publicis Groupe, which will retain its 49% minority equity stake.
The agency, which was launched with three employees in 1971 and has grown to 130 today, was among the first to bring the message that “black people are not dark-skinned white people” to the ad world. Burrell will stay on at the firm as chairman emeritus while executing his carefully calculated succession plan. “It’s time to give these younger minds with fresh ideas and passion the opportunity to do what I’ve groomed them to do — guide this firm into the next era,” he says. That era is predicated on Yurban marketing, a concept formulated by Burrell (No. 3 on the BE ADVERTISING AGENCIES list with $190 million in billings) to create marketing messages for the youth-oriented, urban market that defines every new trend from speech to music to fashion to food.
The Burrell leadership shift will be “the first time one of the older African American-owned agencies goes through a period of planned transition in its management,” according to Ken Smikle, publisher of Target Market News. “It says we’ve reached a certain point in that era, and it says a lot about the maturity of these agencies as businesses. But Tom’s legacy as one of the great pioneers in the advertising industry is assured.”
Burrell will be remembered for creating the African American advertising space and developing hundreds of Burrell alumni over the years who are now bringing the concepts learned in the halls of Burrell to the marketplace, many of them by launching competing firms. Many others are working in corporate marketing, “not just dealing with African American-specific assignments but more general-market assignments as well,” Burrell points out.
Conner, one of those whom Burrell encouraged to start his own firm, the Steve Agency in New York City, will now lead the creative team at Burrell. The 20-year industry veteran is most well known for the award-winning Budweiser Whassup! campaign that rocked airwaves throughout 2000 by capitalizing on an intonation given to a common phrase in urban slang. He accepted the partnership at Burrell after recognizing a unique opportunity to “help make Burrell’s reach as far and wide as the black diaspora.” Conner and his partners Ferguson and Williams, who have helped shape the agency’s culture and point of view, express passionately their commitment both to Burrell and to maintaining