Getting to know Tom Burrell


Tom Burrell at the 2017 One Show Awards

I never liked Tom Burrell that much. But to be honest I didn’t know Mr. Burrell (as I now affectionately call him) when I first moved to Chicago in August of 1994.

All I really knew about him from my early days in advertising was that he was the guy who did all the Black McDonald’s and Coke ads that interrupted my watching of Soul Train on Saturday afternoons. And hair care products. Lots of hair care products!

And then my dislike for him went a little deeper when I heard that he did not approve of DDB launching spin-off shop SpikeDDB in 1996. My old art director partner Geoff Edwards and I played an integral part in the process.

Nope did not like this man that I never met.

Colin Costello

But life is funny and in March of 2003, like so many other Black creatives who preceded and followed me, I found myself in the reception area of Burrell Communications.

For an interview.

And I was hired. Freelance. Of course.

After getting over the initial shock of being in a Black agency (I had always tried to avoid it) I found myself working on a Coke pitch in a borrowed office with my soon-to-be-art director Jhames Holley. While discussing how we could put Shannon Doherty in a spot, a tall handsome African American man poked his head in to see how things were going.

Colin meet Tom.

Here it was – my chance to lay out all the reasons why I didn’t like him. But all I could manage was, “hi.”

A few months later, I was hired on staff as Creative Director. I saw Mr. Burrell on the way to the men’s room and asked can we talk about a raise in a few months. He looked and me and said, “Sure.”

Not bad for a man I did not like.

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Tom Burrell among 2017 Hall of Fame inductees

As the years passed while I was at Burrell, I started to see something that I didn’t see at the other agencies. There was an unflinching loyalty to Mr. Burrell that could not be matched. I started to see what Mr. Burrell had built – an agency that had a true devotion to its target audience. Mr. Burrell had created an entity that truly wanted to reach out, uplift and inform the African American audience.

It was critical that they did, because only a handful of agencies were addressing the Black audience needs and speaking to them with insights and nuances that emerged from the culture.

And Mr. Burrell led that charge. And people like Faye Ferguson, McGhee Williams Osse, Terrence Burrell, Aubrey Walker, Ty Williams, Shanteka Sigers, Dena Jackson, Debra Amsden, Shirley Portee, Lewis Williams, Steve Conner and others bandied around Tom to carry out that mission.

I started to have one-on-one conversations with Mr. Burrell in his office. Just shooting the shit. It was here I learned that he began his career in the mailroom at Wade Advertising while still a student at Roosevelt University. While the agency’s first black employee, he got himself a junior copywriting position, working on the agency’s Alka-Seltzer and Robin Hood All-Purpose Flour accounts. It slowly began to dawn on me that I was talking to a legend.

He went on to work at several agencies, including Burnett and FCB, before founding Burrell Communications Group in 1971. I had my last one-on-one with him in 2004 right before he retired.

As the years have passed since I left Burrell, I look back at that group with fondness and pride. That is attributed to Mr. Burrell, who rightfully was just inducted into The One Show Hall of Fame – my personal benchmark for advertising.

In addition to his work in advertising, Mr. Burrell is the author of “Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority” and founded the nonprofit Resolution Project to “challenge and reverse ongoing mass media stereotypes and negative race-based conditioning.”

All of this leads me to say, I don’t like Tom Burrell. I love and respect him. Congratulations on your induction, sir.