I was a forty-year-old, ambitious black professional when I moved from Philadelphia to Chicago in 1981 to work for Burrell Advertising. Chicago sits on Lake Michigan. As the plane pulled in for a landing, I discovered a wondrous city of bold architecture. The view from the plane hoovering over the city was breath taking. I saw apartment buildings taller than any building in Philly. The iconic John Hancock building, which, at the time was the tallest building in the world, punctuated the skyline. Never, in my imagination, would I have thought that I would living in such a grand city, working for a Black owned company.
The 80’s were the golden age for Black consumers. White retail businesses learned that the 29.4 million African Americans in America were a lucrative, untapped market. Reaching Black consumers required more than just advertising to them. Advertisers had to also capture Black American’s unique culture, style of dress, mannerisms, and lingo. Black consumers had to see images looking like them. White advertising mad rush to tap into this rich market of Black consumers created many Black consumer advertisers agencies around the country.
Burrell was the largest black advertising agency in the country. I was specifically recruited to use my account executive marketing experience to promote the brand and products of the McDonald’s Corporation. Chief Financial Officer of Burrell, Barbara Burrell, paid all my moving expenses, including putting my belongings in storage and placing me into their corporate apartment while I searched for a permanent place to live.
A bustling national advertising agency, Burrell not only had McDonald’s as an account, but also Coca Cola and other prominent brands that included Leggs and Soft Sheen. I became a part of a prosperous, prolific creative team of black professionals who turned out ingenious ad campaigns for major players in the fast food, beverage, women apparel, and hair care industries.
Chicago was also renowned for Black businesses unlike Philadelphia. On the south side, there was The Nation of Islam that employed African Americans in bakeries, trucking companies and other businesses. There were Black owned banks, manufacturing companies, funeral homes, beauty salons and Soft Sheen, founded in 1964, which manufactured Jheri Curl hair care products for black consumers.
Ebony and Jet Magazines, published by Johnson Publishing Company, was located on Michigan Avenue in downtown Chicago. Before Essence and Black Enterprise, there was Ebony and Jet beginning in 1942. Ebony was founded as a monthly Black lifestyle magazine followed six years later by Jet, initially founded as “The Weekly Negro News Magazine.”
These two publications revolutionized the black publishing industry by providing to its readers positive stories and news coverage. In its heyday, Ebony reached an estimated 1.2 million readers. Jet’s readership was around 900,000. WJPC radio, also founded by John Johnson, was Chicago’s first Black owned radio station, and the first Black owned radio station in the country.
I, like a lot of other African Americans during that time, believed the myth that Black people could not work together to accomplish anything. The myth was repeated to me by my grandmother in my early life, passed on to her, yet here I found myself working in a city and for a black company capable of working together as a team.
For a guy who only had a GED and growing up in a ghetto in Philadelphia, this was impressive. I contributed to major McDonald’s ad campaigns. I traveled the country, meeting with Back McDonald’s owner/operators, teaching them how to increases revenues from Black consumers.
I was a freshly minted Black man professional of the 80’s. My condo was on Lakeshore Drive. While traveling for McDonald's, I slept in the best hotels, rented the best cars, and ate the best foods. I was able to dress in designer suits and shoes. I dated successful women. I mingled in exclusive social circles that I had previously only read about in Ebony, Essence, and Black Enterprise magazine. There was no doubt that in my mind that I had arrived.
Next up: I resign from Burrell to take on another challenge.
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