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Tom Burrell - Developed Self-confidence In Business

Brief BiographiesBiographies: Katie Burke (1953–) Biography - Personal to Galeazzo Ciano (1903–1944) BiographyTom Burrell Biography - Created Jobs As A Child, Struggled For Success In College, Developed Self-confidence In Business

Developed Self-Confidence in Business

During the first six months of running his own agency, Burrell had many moments of nervousness and fears of failure. As he had in college, he almost became ill from the stress, but he persevered because he had decided that he needed the independence of running his own business. Even if his advertising agency did not succeed, he determined that he would never return to a corporate advertising job. He had even thought of other businesses he might try, but he did not need to use those ideas. In 1972, after his firm's initial success with Marlboro, Burrell landed the national McDonald's restaurant chain as a client, and, a year later, Coca-Cola. In 1974, McBain left the agency, and the firm name was changed to Burrell Advertising.

Perhaps Burrell's biggest business success was in learning to trust his own skills and intelligence. Having convinced himself by bad school experiences that he was not intelligent, Burrell had felt that he needed other people to help him run his agency. Once he was on his own, however, his confidence in his abilities grew, and the success of his business increased. Burrell told CBB that "it took him many years of success at work to rebuild his confidence after the college advisor's disheartening warning." To guard others against his experience, he told CBB that in the future he made it a point "to advise young African Americans to respect those in authority, but to maintain their belief in themselves."

Burrell's agency continued to prosper and gain new clients, winning awards for some of its innovative commercials. By 1979 Burrell's client billings reached more than $10 million. In 1983 the company opened an office in Atlanta, Georgia, and in 1992 the firm name was changed to Burrell Communications Group and billings approached $100 million. The agency has created successful campaigns for such products targeted specifically at African Americans, including Johnson Products' Afrosheen and Ultrasheen, to brands and services used by everyone, like Verizon, Kmart, Sears, Tide, Crest Toothpaste, and Sprite, among many others.

Though Burrell has always wanted his agency to represent all kinds of products and to appeal to all sorts of people, most advertisers continue to view Burrell Communications as a way to reach youth and urban markets and people of color. Before Burrell entered the business, there were very few people of color in commercials. Those that were seen were usually stereotyped. Burrell's commercials gave a very human face to blacks in advertising, focusing on families and relationships. When Toyota received criticism for another agency's ad that was perceived by many as racist, they turned to Burrell for a more positive campaign. Burrell also invented the advertising term "yurban," a combination of young and urban, that describes an important target market. Burrell advertisements treat their young audience with respect, using humor, music, and honesty to sell products.

In the summer of 2004, Burrell announced his retirement from Burrell Communications. The agency continues to be one of the top advertising companies, and Burrell still maintains a role as chairman emeritus. However, he considers himself, as he told CBB, "more rewired than retired," and continues to try new adventures, such as performing as a singer.



Advertising Age, June 3, 1996, pp. C1-16.

Advertising Age (Midwest Region Edition), June 14, 1999, p. 36.

ADWEEK (Midwest Edition), November 12, 2001, pp. 5-6.

Crain's Illinois Business, Spring 1986, pp. 45-7.

Jet, December 21, 1998, pp. 8-11; July 5, 2004, p. 48.


Burrell Communications Group, www.burrell.com (March 5, 2005).

"Tom Burrell Biography," The History Makers, www.thehistorymakers.com/biography/biography.asp?bioindex=62&category=businessmakers (March 5, 2005).

"Tom Burrell's Cultural Anthropological Route to Hip-Hop Marketing." Ethnographic Solutions, www.ethnographic-solutions.com/pages/tomburrell.htm (March 5, 2005).

"Tom Burrell To Receive Advertising Industry's Highest Honor," Forbes, www.forbes.com/businesswire/feeds/businesswire/2005/01/19/businesswire20050119005663r1.html (March 5, 2005)


Information for this profile was obtained through an interview with Tom Burrell on February 25, 2005.

—Tina Gianoulis

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