Thomas J. Burrell: PCC's Very Own Renaissance Man
News May 9, 2023

Thomas J. Burrell: PCC's Very Own Renaissance Man

By Dominic Calabrese, Past PCC President 

His awards, citations and honors could literally fill a museum. A partial list would include induction into the Advertising Hall of Fame in 2004; receiving the coveted Albert Lasker Award after being named the "Advertising Person of the Year" in 1985-86; and a recipient of the prestigious Missouri Honor Medal for Distinguished Service in Journalism from the University of Missouri's School of Journalism.

He has also garnered a host of lifetime achievement awards from numerous organizations including our own, the Publicity Club of Chicago.

Equally impressive is his list of firsts from being the first African-American to work at a Chicago advertising agency to establishing one of the nation's leading African-American owned full-service communications agencies.  

Even with all these accolades, however, Thomas J. Burrell, founder & chairman emeritus, Burrell Communications, probably most impresses his friends, colleagues and those who meet him for the first time as a "classy gentleman."

"I was thrilled to present such an exemplary human being who enjoyed his life, family and work," recalls Past PCC President Karen Brown who made introductory remarks on behalf of Mr. Burrell when he received his Lifetime Achievement Award from the club. "Despite his lofty status as an advertising giant, he was modest about his achievements and conducted himself with great class."

She notes that Mr. Burrell's groundbreaking teachings in targeted, multi-cultural marketing not to mention his success in leading a powerhouse agency with clients like Coca Cola, McDonald's, Procter & Gamble, General Mills, Toyota and many others easily earned him PCC's Lifetime Achievement Award.

Indeed, Mr. Burrell, a Chicago native who graduated from Roosevelt University, is widely credited for paving the way in effectively reaching African-American consumers by creating advertising that accurately reflected their values, lifestyles and aspirations, particularly through television. In the process, he changed the face of television advertising by developing spots that proved as popular with mainstream consumers as they were with his intended audience.

In addition to his accomplishments as a nationally respected advertising genius, entrepreneur and businessman, Mr. Burrell has received praise for his efforts as a humanitarian as well as for his interest in art and music.

"Simply put, Tom Burrell is a great American," maintains James Kesteloot, past president of The Chicago Lighthouse, a leading social service organization assisting individuals who are blind, visually impaired, disabled and veterans.

Mr. Kesteloot, who sits on The Lighthouse board, presented Mr. Burrell with another top honor, that organization's Lifetime Achievement Award in 1998.

He points out that In addition to experiencing racial discrimination particularly in his early years, Mr. Burrell also had to deal with the challenges of being visually impaired.

Mr. Burrell often credits The Chicago Lighthouse and nationally acclaimed optometrist Dr. Alfred Rosenbloom who formerly directed The Lighthouse's low vision clinic, for helping him successfully cope with his vision loss.

"Tom became an ardent and passionate supporter of The Lighthouse and our mission,"  Mr. Kesteloot says, noting that his tireless efforts on behalf of the agency also earned him a Centennial Medal in 2006.  Mr. Burrell was in good company that year, joining the ranks of such other recipients as former President Barack Obama, JP Morgan/Chase CEO Jamie Dimon and past McDonald's CEO Jack Greenberg, all of whom left a substantial mark on the organization which celebrated its one hundredth anniversary in 2006.

Mr. Kesteloot, who is blind himself, adds that Mr. Burrell always amazed him with his talents in so many areas.  "Among other things, Tom was a jazz enthusiast and I vividly recall his performance at the legendary Andy's Jazz Club in Chicago," he smiles.

Even in retirement, Mr. Burrell's shadow still looms large over the advertising community as well as at Burrell Communications.

"Every day, we are inspired by Tom's amazing legacy and are guided by the core principles he laid out.  There is no finer role model, teacher and friend than Tom Burrell!", Burrell Communications Co-CEO McGhee Osse.

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