How “Total Market” evolved from city’s black agencies

Tom Burrell

Black History Month is an appropriate time to ask, “What happened to black advertising agencies in Chicago?” These were the shops owned and operated by African Americans, whose staffs were black and who created national advertising targeted to “the urban market.”

The grandfather of black agencies was Vince Cullers, a former Ebony magazine art director credited with America’s first black agency. He opened his doors in 1956, a year after Rosa Parks sparked a revolution.  For 46 years, Vince Cullers Advertising was a training ground for African Americans who went on to work in big white agencies or started their own shops. 

Thereafter, and especially during the ‘60s when advertising underwent a “creative revolution,” black-owned agencies quietly appeared.  Eugene Morris, Robert J. Dale, Carol Williams, Bernie Washington, Bill Daniel, Barbara Proctor, Lowell Thompson and Jim Glover were among the black agency owners.

Tom Burrell’s agency in business 40 years

The head of the class was Tom Burrell, who in 1971 teamed with art director Emmett McBain to form Burrell McBain that quickly established itself as a leading agency. Burrell went solo as Burrell Advertising in 1974 — 13 years after he got into advertising via the mail room at a racially hostile agency, now long gone.

For the Fortune 500 brands like McDonald’s and Coca Cola, Burrell created a new kind of advertising targeted to the culture of the post-Civil Rights changing racial times and his “black agency” became one of the largest multi-cultural firms in the world.  

In 1999, he sold 49% of his stock to Publicis and a few years later, the 51% was sold to long-time employees Faye Ferguson, and McGhee Williams-Ossee.

Black agencies still exist in a different guise

What happened to Burrell Communications Group over more than three decades of cultural, economic and population change is what has happened to black agencies. 

“Black agencies are still around,” comments Lewis Williams, a Burrell partner and its chief creative officer, “but they’re under a new identity known as ‘multi-cultural.’”

More brands are aligning their multi-cultural strategy to an increasingly diverse audience.  Populations have shifted drastically since Vince Cullers went into business. In Chicago, for example, the population is 45% white, 33% black, 29% Hispanic and 5% Asian, according to the 2010 Census.

With this racial mix, different ethnic groups are considered  all aspects of marketing and are called the new “mainstream audience” or the “Total Market.”

Total Market agencies can be black-owned, or run by black managers of big agency subsidiaries. Their staffs are racially mixed and their client rosters burst with major advertisers.

In Chicago, these Total Marketing firms include Commonground, Upshot, Walton Isaacson, Interpublic’s Axis Agency, G-Pod, Admark, Cardenas Marketing, Globovoz Communications, San Jose, Marketvision and Leo Burnet’s Lapiz, among others.

There’s no longer a “general market,” states Starcom division Tapestry.  “Face it. We are now all the same.”