50 Years Marketing (in the) Black

Lewis Williams, Chief Creative Officer, Burrell Communications (Chicago, IL)

Lewis Williams is Chief Creative Officer at Burrell Communications, an African-American-focused, female-owned agency that started 50 years ago to address the interests of Black consumers. Historically, African-Americans often have not been portrayed favorably in the media. Burrell focuses on depicting African-Americans in a positive, realistic way. The very first national-scale client? McDonalds. Other big-name organizations the agency has worked with include Toyota, Walmart, Proctor & Gamble, Google, Major League Baseball and Coca-Cola.

Majority-owned by Fay Ferguson and McGhee Williams-Osse, Burrell Communications maintains a strong partnership and affiliation with Publicis . . . and shares clients with other Publicis Groupe agencies. The agency maintains its independence, but the association with Publicis provides synergistic backup and resources.

Early in his career, Lewis was often the only person of color in an agency. After working five years at Burrell, he left to pursue other opportunities at some large, high-profile agencies. Twenty years later, Fay and McGhee contacted him and offered him his current position as Burrell’s Chief Creative Officer. Like many employees at this agency, Lewis was a “boomerang” — working for Burrell . . . leaving . . . and then coming back. He credits his success to having great mentors, “following the green lights,” and the chip-on-his-shoulder, I’ll-prove-I-can-do-it attitude that came from being an African-American raised in the South.

Lewis has seen a lot of change. In 1971, brands were afraid to feature Black people in their marketing: “other” people might assume that the product was just for Black people. Early MTV required Black artists “to have a white person in the video.” Back then, there were a few who understood that consumers came in “all different shapes, sizes, and colors” and the issue was not about race . . . it was about reaching out to untapped audiences. 

The one thing that will never change in marketing, Lewis says, is “telling great stories.” Story length varies, depending on platform – from as little as two words in a tweet, six seconds on Instagram, on up to a story line running though such an epic series as Game of Thrones. Lewis reminds us, “Every platform has a personality and expectations.” In this interview, Lewis explains why advertisers use the abbreviated, frustrating, 15-second version of an engaging 30-second spot . . . it’s not just about media spend . . . it is also because that 15-second, less-complete story, like a film trailer, leaves you “wanting more.”

Lewis has a passion for mentoring “young creatives and young people in the business.” The agency is working with The One Club for Creativity, “an international nonprofit organization seeking to inspire, encourage, and develop creative excellence in advertising and design,” and Oriel Davis, Spotify Creative Director, on a project to provide advertising training to young people. The first session was presented six months ago in New York and LA. The most recent session will involve 15 students in Chicago and 15 in Atlanta. Lewis is also serving on the public relations judging panel for the Clio awards.

Lewis can be reached on his agency’s website at: burrell.com, on LinkedIn as Lewis Williams, on Twitter, at @willmsl, and as Lewis Williams on LinkedIn.

Transcript Follows:

ROB: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Rob Kischuk, and I am joined today by Lewis Williams, Chief Creative Officer at Burrell Communications based in Chicago, Illinois. Welcome to the podcast, Lewis.

LEWIS: Hey, Rob. Thank you for having me.

ROB: It’s great to have you here. Why don’t you start off by telling us about Burrell and about the agency’s superpower? Where do you all thrive?

LEWIS: What’s really great about Burrell Communications, first and foremost, we are celebrating our 50th anniversary of being in business. When you think about being an African-American-focused agency – for any agency, any business, to be alive and well right now for 50 years says a lot about us. We were started in 1971 by our founder, named Thomas Burrell. He saw a need that African-Americans were being left out of the marketing conversation for big brands. So he started an agency to represent the Black consumer. Our philosophy is positive realism; we always want to depict African-Americans in a positive way in media, because so often in media, African-Americans were not portrayed in the best light.

ROB: Absolutely understood. If you look at where the firm is today, what sorts of clients are typical for you? What does the typical engagement look like?

LEWIS: It’s really great. We have national clients. Started back in 1971. McDonald’s was the very first client of the agency, and I’m proud to say they still are a client today. We’ve had them for 50 years. We have national clients; we have Toyota, we have Walmart, we have a lot of Procter & Gamble business. We really have mainstay clients. We’ve done work for people like Google, Major League Baseball. Coca-Cola is one of our present-day clients that we’ve had. As you can see, we’ve had really big-name brands.

ROB: It’s quite an impressive client roster. You yourself have been with the firm, it looks like, around 15 years. How did you end up at the firm and how has that journey with the firm emerged over time?

LEWIS: It’s an interesting story. We call ourselves boomerangs. That’s an employee that was at Burrell, went away, and then came back. I’m a Burrell boomerang. I worked at Burrell for 5 years much, much earlier in my career. Had you told me that I would come back to be the Chief Creative Officer, I would’ve thrown my shoe at you. It’s interesting; Tom Burrell himself, the founder, hired me. I worked there for 5 years, I went to other agencies – mainly Leo Burnett, which is a big one in Chicago.

I was gone a good 15 years, and I got a call from Fay Ferguson and McGhee Williams-Osse – and I’m proud to say we are female-owned. Not only a Black agency, we’re female-owned. I got a call after I’d been away from the agency for 20 years or so – not to date myself – and they said, “Hey, Lewis, we’re looking for someone to lead the agency.”

That was really special to me. You get hired by the founder, and one day you’re sitting in his shoes. Because Tom was a creative himself. He wasn’t an account guy. So I really looked at, wow, I’m going to step into the shoes of this advertising legend. Tom Burrell, again, he’s in the advertising hall of fame. It was just a great honor to have a career that comes full circle and sit in the seat that I’m in today.

ROB: That’s certainly a privilege. You’re unique in being a sizable agency of consequence, of lasting beyond the founder, and then also, as I understand it, still remaining I think independent. Is that right?

LEWIS: Yes. We do have a relationship with Publicis, but we’re the majority stakeholders. Fay and McGhee are the majority stakeholders. They have a very strong partnership and affiliation with Publicis. So we have strong backup and resources. We do a lot of work with the other Publicis agencies. We share some of the same clients. It’s good synergy at work with Publicis and Burrell.

ROB: That’s very interesting. I would imagine that you have probably seen an offer or two cross your desk in your time there to become fully part of someone. I’m sure there’s an intentionality in staying independent, because it would be very easy just to say yes to a check.

LEWIS: Yeah, you can see a lot of the big agency brands – I worked at Leo Burnett, and Leo Burnett was a huge, huge independent agency. So was Fallon. This is not pushing anything against the big conglomerates and everything, the holding groups, the holding companies, but you do lose a little personality. You lose a little bit of that individuality and culture.

When you think about that, this way we really can represent ourselves and in the community that we represent. Once you get totally acquired by a holding company, it’s just a different game at that time. You’ve got to fit into an overall much bigger picture, and you’ve got the limitations and the decisions. You’re going to have to go through a lot more hoops. Even though those decisions may be beneficial to the entire group, it may not be the best decision for you.

I applaud us being able to hold onto our independence. But even now, with a great affiliation with Publicis Groupe, they have been a great partner in helping us attain some of the success we’ve been enjoying. So I think right now it’s having our cake and eating it too. [laughs]

ROB: You mentioned having boomeranged almost from a different era of advertising. When I see “Communications” in the title of a firm, a lot of times that also hearkens to an origin in a lens of public relations, but then also through advertising. Now the world is very, very different in terms of the marketing mix. How have you seen the mix of services evolve at Burrell over your first tenure, your second tenure, and so on?

LEWIS: I’ll tell you, Rob, you’re right. It is such a different industry. It is an entire different industry. One of the things I love is to mentor young creatives and young people in the business, and that’s what’s kept me excited. This is no longer the industry I started in. It’s an entirely different industry. Like you said, communications comes in so many forms – even to the point where you look at advertising agencies and marketing people – we used to always push things on you. “You’ve got to watch this commercial. I don’t care.”

But now, in this digital and social world we’re in, and this on-demand world that we are, and the streaming and all of those things, everyone is a marketer. The influencers now. Creativity is coming from everywhere. It’s just such a unique time to be in this “industry” – and I put quotes around “industry” because what is it now? It’s a little bit of everything. All the lines are blurred, from the content makers, and even when you talked about public relations.

You see the work I’m judging for the Clios right now. I’m on the judging panel for public relations. I mean, they’re marketers. No longer are PR companies about, “The CEO said something wrong, so we need to fix it with a letter, with a press conference.” No, that’s gone away. Everyone is touching the consumer in so many unique ways where you can’t tell “what is what” now.

ROB: Absolutely. The distinction between ad, print, digital – it certainly mixes together.

LEWIS: Yeah.

ROB: As the Chief Creative Officer, how has your creative process shifted? People don’t think about it, but 15 years is right on the edge of pre- or barely social media.

LEWIS: Yeah. How old is the iPhone now? The iPhone might be 14 years old. It’s so funny, Rob – you know how you keep your old cellphones, because what do you do with them? I have my very first iPhone. It’s this little bitty thing. It looks archaic. I remember seeing the iPhone for the first time, and it’s like, oh my God, wow, we’ve gone to Mars. Now I look at my first iPhone 1 and I chuckle. [laughs]

ROB: So how has the creative process shifted with these different devices, with different audiences, with different audiences on different devices? Your audience for the iPhone in 2007 was different from the audience today, which is like everybody. Every age group, every demo is in the iPhone audience now.

LEWIS: This is how I approach it, Rob. At the end of the day, one thing that’s going to never, ever change is telling great stories. Telling stories that are relatable. You tell a great story, it will engage people.

Now, the thing is the length of those stories. Who would’ve ever thought – and I couldn’t have told you 15 years ago – that I’d be able to create a story from beginning to middle to end in 6 seconds? A lot has to do now with our attention span and how we consume content. I remember Game of Thrones. I don’t know if you were a Game of Thrones guy.

ROB: I definitely watched some Game of Thrones.

LEWIS: That was a whole thing on social media. You could only engage people for 2 or 3 seconds. But now, you can see what the event of Game of Thrones became. It became appointment television. It became hours on hours of content in the midst of where sometimes you could hold somebody for 2 seconds. That just shows you the power of the storyline.

So what I tell my young creatives and all of us: it really is about the story. The story could be a tweet. Popeye’s Chicken exploded with one tweet, and it was two words: “…y’all good?” That was a response in a tweet. So you can go to two words in a tweet, you can go to 6 second videos on Instagram, or you can go to a whole series like Game of Thrones. But at the core of that is: what is your engaging story and how is it connecting to the brand or the message you’re trying to give?

At the end of that, throw all that away. There’s so many ways to tell that story, you have to be aware of the medium that you’re telling that story in. Every platform has a personality and expectations. If you’re going to tweet something, you’ve got to put on your tweeting storytelling hat. If I’m going to Instagram it, I’ve got to put on my more visual storytelling hat. If I’m going to Facebook it, I’m thinking about more communities.

Television, a lot is still served in the same way, but a lot of this social influence is finding its way into television as well and how you tell those stories. You see it a lot with user-generated content on YouTube. So many brands. You see something went viral on YouTube; you see that clip in a brand commercial during the Super Bowl.

All of this stuff is coming together, but at the very core of everything is storytelling and how that storytelling matches the platform.

ROB: That “…y’all good?” – it’s such a concise example. It’s like the “Jesus wept” of advertising.

LEWIS: [laughs] Yeah.

ROB: “What do you mean, Jesus wept? Tell me the story here, man.” [laughs] Did you have any involvement in that Popeye’s campaign, or did you have clients looking at that and how to respond? How did you react when you saw that, or perhaps were involved in it?

LEWIS: I want to make it very clear, I was not involved in it. But it’s something which you see and you say, absolute brilliance.

ROB: McDonald’s had to start thinking about it. They’re getting to it, right?

LEWIS: Yeah, they’re getting to it. What you saw was the personality of a brand on Twitter. Social media has been very difficult for brands to navigate because social media is for us. It’s not for brands. You controlled us with making us look at TV commercials and stuff, but now this is ours. I’m following my people, I’m following my friends, I’m following my influencers, and I’m following the brands I believe in. So when you come into my space, you’ve got to really understand who I am and what I’m about.

A lot of brands still go into social media with brand voice, like here’s Mommy and Daddy telling us what we think and always pushing themselves first. What Popeye’s was able to do was create a personality and become a person. How many brands would say “y’all”? It took on the persona of a person, so it gets much more easily embraced.

Many brands still struggle with their voice in social media. How do I still be a brand, but at the same time be very relatable to my consumer? That’s a tough line to walk.

ROB: It’s absolutely tough. I’m thinking of one of the ads of the moment – and of course, the insurance companies always get deep into this world. I think what people tend to forget is they take a lot of shots on goal. They just happen to have enough budget that they can take a lot of shots with big ads. Maybe other brands need to think more about how they can take more shots at success with smaller ads.

But I think the ad of the moment that I think is even cheated by shortening is, of course, the Geico Tag Team TV ad. The 30 second version, there’s an element of storytelling there. And I will tell you – and this may just be me – when I see the 15 second version of the ad, I feel cheated. I don’t know.

LEWIS: [laughs] Rob, the reason why you feel cheated is because you love it, and you know there’s more. It’s like, “Wow, I want that experience.” The 30 second spot allowed you to enjoy and engage, and you really were into it. I smile every time I see it. Every time I see it, I smile. I love it. I don’t look away. It’s so engaging. When you only get a taste of that, you know there’s more and you want more.

But that’s good, because now I’ve got you still wanting more. It’s like, come off the stage with them wanting more, not saying, “Okay, we’re finished with you.” But also, that 15 seconds has a purpose. It’s just a reminder. You’ve got to fit into the media budget. You’ve got to make the media expand. I’ll hit you with the 30 every once in a while, and then it’s sort of like the preview. It’s the trailer for the movie. You see the trailer for the movie and you go, “Wow, I want to see that movie again.” It just reminds you that the other content is out there, that you can go on YouTube and watch it as many times as you like, if you want to. That’s the purpose of the 15.

But that’s a great way of telling you, when you really tell the story on that platform, and it’s 30 seconds in a world where people tell you they only look at it for 2 seconds, it just reenergized Tag Team’s career. People fell in love with nostalgia again and the music and so many things. It’s so clever, the generations. It says so many things in that story.

ROB: Lewis, you’ve kind of blown my mind with the 15 second ad insights on that, because you’ve left me thinking about film trailers and how some of them just try to be a bad summary of the story and some of them work harder to get you to want to see the rest of the story. Now I’m thinking about all of the ways that the 15 second cut of that Geico ad is just meant to leave me wanting more. I haven’t thought about it that way, and I’ll watch every 15 second ad through a different lens now.

LEWIS: Yeah. It has to do with media spend. 30 seconds costs more than 15 seconds. I’ve got two dollars, I’ve got to stretch it for as much reach as I possibly can.

ROB: Got it. I’ve seen at least a good article or two out there about the production of that ad, about the creative process, about giving room for ad lib and free flow, and even the career decisions around it that Tag Team made, of the ads they didn’t do. They didn’t do the “Soup! There it is” advertisement that they could’ve done. It would’ve been very natural coming off of the SNL Justin Timberlake skit (while we’re tagging all over the media map here for a moment).

Lewis, when you reflect on your journey, your career so far, and your time in particular with Burrell, what are some lessons you’ve learned that you might consider taking the time machine back and giving yourself some advice on what to do differently?

LEWIS: I tell you, man, Rob, I don’t know what to do differently. Some of that is personal or not. One of the unique perspectives I do have on this industry is that I am an African-American creative. That’s been tough, being in this industry. There’s a lot of movement to rectify that, not only with African-Americans, but women and all minorities and people of color in the advertising industry. That’s always been tough to navigate.

As far as doing things differently, just on the personal side, I wish I’d had someone to help me navigate a little bit more. One of the challenges of being in these situations is often, especially early in my career, I was the only person of color in the entire agency. But from that, you do learn a lot. You learn how to interact with people that are different from you. You learn how to not lose your culture. I think I navigated that pretty well, because being from the South, I could navigate being the only African-American in the room and not losing who you are.

Personally, there’s maybe speaking up quicker. I had this fear of losing my job if I actually said exactly what I meant. That came with experience, that came with confidence, and it came with success. You get that behind you, and then you can speak a little louder because people really want to know what you want to say.

But my whole thing I say for anybody is, there’s talent and there’s work ethic. They need each other. They really do need each other, because I’ve run into a lot of talented people without the work ethic, and I’ve worked alongside people with stronger work ethic but who lacked the talent. It really takes both. Both can take you so far, but until they really meld together, that’s when bigger success happens.

For me, I had one of those lives that I followed the green lights. I didn’t go against something. If it was a red light, I didn’t try to force it. I just followed the green lights – and I had help. I had people that believed in me. I had mentors. I like to feel like I deserved the mentorship. Somebody looked at this kid and thought, “Wow, if I can help this kid out, I can take credit myself.” [laughs] That sticks with me.

And I’ve always had an underdog mentality. First, being Black coming out of the South, being Black working at predominantly white agencies. Even working at Burrell, a Black agency, it still is a resource struggle. But when you’re an underdog, Rob, you get a chip on your shoulder. You just want to prove everybody wrong and make them eat their words. Whatever they were thinking, I want them to eat it. [laughs]

ROB: Probably quite a privilege for you now, where you are – you certainly probably don’t know everything, but you know enough to help some other folks that are coming along. One thing I wonder, coming from the other side of the table, if I’m just freelancing a little bit on the history of the agency, I would imagine early on, a lot of folks were engaging you, saying, “Can you help us speak to your audience?” Was that the earlier era?

LEWIS: Yeah, and it’s interesting how it’s changed. It’s sort of like here we are, back again. In 1971, a lot of brands were simply afraid of featuring Black people in their marketing efforts. That’s why we give huge kudos to McDonald’s. They were one of the very first people to actually show Black people in national ads. At that time – you’ve got to think about back in the ’70s – people were concerned, “Am I only saying that this is for Black people? I don’t want to piss off other people.” Things like that. You’ve got to think about that. So that’s very different.

But fast forward now and what’s going on contextually in the country now, you’re seeing people of color everywhere push for that. That’s been a very interesting thing from then to now. But there was a time that brands were afraid. They just didn’t believe in it.

But at the same time, you had people in the ’70s that felt that it should be done, but it wasn’t social pressure. They just understood that, listen, these are consumers. We’re consumers, and we come in all different shapes, sizes, and colors. They didn’t look at it from race. They’re like, “Here’s a consumer that we’re not talking to.” I remember early on this whole stigma around women buying cars, that women were intimidated, and if a woman wanted to buy a car, she should bring a man with her, because “what did women know about cars?”

I remember Subaru was one of the first commercials that had this young lady come into a dealership, and this dealer was talking to her like, “Oh honey, you don’t need to know nothing about that engine. Here’s this vanity mirror. It comes with a vanity mirror. That’s all you need to know.” And she walked out and she went to a Subaru dealer, and he treated her entirely different. It showed women are customers too.

The same thing with beer commercials. I worked on Budweiser, and I’ll tell you, back in the day, if you were a woman in a beer commercial, you had on a swimsuit or you’re a Bilbo. Now I saw this beer commercial where the woman comes home and takes off her bra to have a beer. You’ve got to understand consumers. It’s really about marketing and making your brand engage with more customers, which takes you to the bottom line.

Real quickly, I remember how things changed. MTV – I don’t know if you recall MTV – was very forward-thinking. But if you were a Black artist, you had to have a white person in the video. I laugh about – go to LL Cool J’s “Around the Way Girl” music video, and you have this white girl dancing. First of all, you’re talking about an around the way girl. “Bad attitude and a Fendi bag.” You go, why is a white girl in an around the way girl… [laughs]

ROB: I remember that.

LEWIS: It’s like, what is she doing there? But MTV said, “Unless you have a white person in your music videos, we will not air you.” It shows you how things have changed.

ROB: Right. One thing I think a lot about in this sort of conversation, part of my imagination is – we’ve talked to niche agencies, cultural agencies, but some of these agencies, and I’m sure you all in particular – it’s unqualified. You’re getting the national campaign.

What I think about, sitting on the other side of the table – you mentioned on your journey thinking about what you say; how do I think about freeing people up and creating enough room around the table for everyone to bring their whole selves to the ideas, and not cutting off the conversation way too early? Because even letting people go out of bounds I think is how you get to where you’re going to go in bounds. If you’re not even bringing your full self to the table, much less going out of bounds for yourself, you can’t get to the best ideas.

LEWIS: Rob, you’re right. I call it stretching the rubber band. You’ve got to stretch that rubber band to know where you are. It’s uncharted territory. You take these elements and you put them together. But you’ve got to know what’s on the other side of the mountain because it does a couple of things. Do you need to go there? Does it reinforce your position that you are in, or tell you where you need to go? And you may not use that information right now because it may not be the right time. But you might use it next week or next year or 6 months from now. It just lets you know.

Creatively, you would think that we should always keep that open as creatives. But sometimes as creatives, we become by nature very protective of our own ideas, or we get there and we stop. We get to a certain level. That’s what I love about how the industry has changed. I give myself credit because I’ve been able to adjust. Some of us have just become stuck, and you stay there. It’s like a musician whose music couldn’t evolve or change. But if I’m a musician, I still have my unique sound behind how I’m able to change with the instrumentation or my message with the lyrics or things like that. But unfortunately, as creatives sometimes we get stuck and we just stay there.

ROB: We just play the hits, right?

LEWIS: Yeah, just play the hits. But to your point, you stretch that rubber band till it almost pops. You know, Rob, sometimes it might just break on you. That’s okay. That’s all right because you know you got everything out of it.

It’s interesting, too, this whole pandemic world. It has us doing things that we would not be doing as an industry. All of us, the whole country, are doing things that we could’ve been doing; the technology was there for us to do it, but we just didn’t do it because we didn’t want to explore. This forced us to do things we never thought about that were always there for us to do.

ROB: That’s right. We did a 50-day road trip vacation last summer from Atlanta to Utah and back in the middle of a pandemic. It was Zoom and it was phones and it was all that, but it was there for me 5 years before.

LEWIS: It was, right. Exactly. Now we’re going to have family reunions and nobody will have to travel. [laughs] We had a little family thing, about 20 of us on the phone together. We’ve never been together, but like you said, the technology was there. It was great to see the kids come in, all over the country, at one time. It was just a Zoom call for an hour. It was great.

ROB: Lewis, this has been a distinct privilege. I’m glad to talk to someone with your perspective and experience and, let’s really note, runaway success. When people want to connect with you and with Burrell, where should they go to find you?

LEWIS: The agency is simply burrell.com. There’s contact information and you’ll see some of the work we’ve done. Me personally, I’m on LinkedIn, Lewis Williams. On Twitter, I’m @willmsl. LinkedIn, just Lewis Williams, you can get me personally.

I like to engage with, like I said, mentorship. Right now we’re working with The One Club, which is in New York, and we have a skill for young people who can’t afford to go to the very expensive advertising schools. We’re starting that in about two weeks. We have about 15 students in Chicago and 15 students in Atlanta. Oriel Davis, CD at Spotify, put this together. 6 months ago they had New York and LA, and now they’ve extended to Chicago and Atlanta. If I can be of any help, I’m always there.

ROB: That’s wonderful. I think anyone should definitely avail themselves of that opportunity. You’ve followed a great path for people to learn from. Lewis, thank you so much for coming on the podcast. Although we can do all this stuff over Zoom, we’ll also do stuff in person sometime, I think. I’m going to get on an airplane at some point and see some people face to face as well.

LEWIS: All right, Rob. Thanks for inviting me. I enjoyed talking with you. Have a good time on the golf course, man.

ROB: Thank you. Be well.

LEWIS: Be well.

ROB: Thank you for listening. The Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast is presented by Converge. Converge helps digital marketing agencies and brands automate their reporting so they can be more profitable, accurate, and responsive. To learn more about how Converge can automate your marketing reporting, email info@convergehq.com, or visit us on the web at convergehq.com.