group’s preference was for competitors: Nissan Altima and Honda Accord. With a marketing budget of $2 million to $5 million, the team created an online augmented reality program with six episodes that revolved around the espionage activities of a black female fashion designer and her Camry. “We wanted to change perceptions of the vehicle by putting the vehicle within an environment that was exciting and thrilling, just like African American females,” Ferguson explains. “It was the first of its kind marketed to African American women. It impacted sales, which is what we wanted to happen all along.”
The campaign surpassed all its objective measures: Camry’s perception among African Americans increased by 12 percentage points, 140% over goal, and purchase consideration for black car buyers was 260% over analysts’ expectations. The campaign’s success earned Burrell the coveted David Ogilvy Award in 2009 in the automotive category.
Two Management Styles, One Mission
It’s been seven years since Ferguson and Williams Osse acquired a controlling interest in Burrell and moved from managing directors to owners. As the company marks its 40th anniversary, Ferguson and Williams Osse celebrate 27 years and 25 years, respectively, with the firm. Both women came from general market agencies to work for Burrell as account managers to eventually having oversight of clients and significant operational roles. A former eighth grade English teacher, Ferguson worked for Chicago-based advertising firm Bozell & Jacobs (now known as Bozell) as an account supervisor when she was personally recruited by Tom Burrell. “He brought me in to work on Procter & Gamble,” recalls Ferguson. “They had just won the business, and he wanted someone who understood classical marketing and advertising.” Williams Osse, a Spelman graduate, joined the Atlanta office after working at the General Mills Restaurant Group on Red Lobster to handle the Georgia Power account and then Coca-Cola.
Before taking control of the company, the two women gained experience managing numerous accounts, contributing to innovative business solutions for clients such as the delineation of the yurban segment, “a group of young people between the ages of 18 and 30 who are connected in terms of mindset and lifestyle rather than ethnicity, geography, or demographics,” explains Williams Osse. “It’s more about a mindset, many millennials fall into this category. They represent more than $200 billion in spending power.”
The women jointly run the company, overseeing its vision, branding, and overall operations, which include financial management, human resources, IT, and administration. Each, however, manages separate accounts. Williams Osse’s roster includes P&G, Supervalu, 3M, Illinois Lottery, and American Airlines. Ferguson has direct supervision over Toyota, McDonald’s, General Mills, Lilly, Walt Disney Resorts, and JC Penney.
What’s also distinctive is their management style. “Fay’s a former schoolteacher. You have to make sure all the ‘i’s’ are dotted and ‘t’s’ are crossed. The grammar is correct,” notes Chief Creative Director Williams. “McGhee’s from Georgia. She has that southern spirit. They’re very different and very much the same.”
Ferguson and Williams Osse agree each has a different approach to management and problem-solving, but both remain united on the direction of the company. “We confer with each other on issues on each of the businesses,” maintains Williams Osse. “But when it comes to the fiscal management of the company and operations, when it comes to the philosophy of the company and core values—people, thought leadership, and integrity—those are things that we work extremely closely on. We are joined at the hip.”
New Ventures to Promote Growth
To keep the company’s competitive edge, the co-CEOs have been evangelical about making all employees in their Chicago, Atlanta, and Los Angeles offices digital-savvy, investing in a two-day training session called “Burrell Boot Camp.” Says Williams Osse: “We put on a seminar for two days and required everybody in the company to attend. Clients were already thinking digital. We had to know the language. We went out and found the best thought leaders, people that were active in the digital space. We rented an auditorium at one of the universities and we had lectures for two days.”
As part of another initiative to further probe the complexities of the African American market, Burrell launched Threshold Nation, a new division focused on the exploration of 35.5 million ethnically diverse males in the U.S. with spending power of $31.5 billion.
In Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz’s recently released book, Onward: How Starbucks Fought for its Life Without Losing its Soul, he wrote that an entrepreneur’s biggest challenge as his or her company expands is managing the struggle between nostalgia and vision. Ferguson and Williams Osse perfectly exemplify how the two co-exist: “I have always been confident in their ability,” says Burrell, who is now chairman emeritus of the agency. “I like to say they let me go. I was able to move on to another life and career with a great deal of comfort because of the high level of confidence I had in their ability. Certainly I proved to be right.”