Thomas J. Burrell (1939- )

Tom Burrell walks through the audience as he speaks
Tom Burrell speaking at Virginia Commonwealth University Library, February 22, 2012
Courtesy VCU Libraries under Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic license

Black advertising pioneer Thomas J. Burrell was born in Chicago, Illinois, on March 18, 1939. His parents had both migrated from the South. His father owned buildings and a blues tavern; his mother ran a beauty shop out of their home. Burrell grew up on Chicago’s South Side, and due to an aptitude test, he took in high school, he decided to pursue a career in advertising. Burrell stated, “I decided to do that (enter advertising) blindly ignoring the fact there were no African Americans…working in the advertising agency.”

At eighteen, Burrell attended Chicago’s Roosevelt University. There he majored in English and minored in Advertising. While still a student, he was hired by one of Chicago’s top ad agencies, Wade Advertising, to work in the mailroom. The desire to employ a negro at the agency came from the advertising firm’s relationship with Ebony Magazine, headquartered in Chicago. Ebony is a monthly magazine focusing on information for the African-American community. Ebony’s advertising representative, Don Brown, had once talked with Burrell and knew of his interest in the industry. Brown told Burrell, and he submitted an application. Burrell gained the position and was the only African American who applied.

Burrell used the opportunity to learn as much as possible and interact with others in the agency. Within six months, he was an advertising copywriter and was soon working on national accounts like Robin Hood All-Purpose Flour and Alka-Seltzer. Two and half years later, he moved to Leo Burnett, another big Chicago firm, where he continued doing copywriting. He got a promotion and left Chicago for London, where he became a copy supervisor with Foote Cone & Belding. He was lured back to Chicago at the height of the Civil Rights Movement by the firm Needham Harper & Steers, where he continued as a copy supervisor.

In 1971, Burrell collaborated with his future business partner, Emmett McBain, to meet some changes brought on by the Civil Rights Movement. As a result, they opened the Burrell McBain Advertising Agency. Although it started with little capital, the agency quickly added two major clients with significant advertising budgets, McDonald’s and Coca-Cola. With a motto of “Black people are not dark-skinned white people,” their agency built lasting partnerships with major national brands and is today the most prominent African American marketing firm in America.

Thomas J. Burrell is a nationally acknowledged leader in advertising. He has received many accolades in his field. These include the Albert Lasker Award for Lifetime Achievement in Advertising, 1986, and the prestigious Missouri Honor Medal for Distinguished Service in Journalism from the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, 1990. In addition, he has served on various boards and has membership in many organizations, including Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc., and Alpha Delta Sigma fraternity.