Advertising executive Fay Ferguson '73 has dedicated her life and career to illuminating and influencing a more authentic picture of what it means to be African-American.
The sum of her enlightening work reveals that people should never be seen through a single-colored lens.
"Our agency was founded on the premise that black people are not dark-skinned white people," says Ferguson, co-chief executive officer of Burrell Communications Group based in Chicago and Los Angeles. Created in 1971, the full-service communications agency is primarily focused on marketing to the African-American consumer.
"Most of what shapes perceptions of minorities in general, and African-Americans in particular," says Ferguson, "comes from the news media, which tends to be fairly negative. We believe it is our responsibility to show what's going on in our community that is good and positive, yet still real – nothing Pollyanna."
The most recent illustration of that effort is Burrell's February 2015 launching of the "Black is Human" initiative. Ferguson and her team felt compelled to respond to growing racial tensions and violence across the country, especially how it was being portrayed to the public.
"The coverage tends to flame fires and create drama," says Ferguson. "Sensationalized reporting by a large portion of the media has not been helpful, unfortunately, and that includes black media."
In an effort to counter the reckless rhetoric and divisive dialogue, Ferguson and her Burrell team set out to find fresh voices that might provide a more genuine, agenda-free perspective. So they ventured into the public schools to see what elementary-aged black students might say about their experiences and aspirations.
Students volunteered to be interviewed and their unscripted commentary is featured in a series of online videos distributed through social media. The first phase of the campaign, "Our Black Boys," included the videos "Real Talk" and "If I Grow Up."
"We picked up that they were saying, 'If I grow up' as opposed to 'when I grow up,'" says Ferguson. "We thought, ' wow this is very powerful and very sad.' So we just wanted to bring that back unfiltered."
She says reaction to the campaign proved encouraging from the start as videos reached more than 130,000 people in just the first few days. "It's been an eye-opener because I don't think it really sinks in for a lot of folks about how difficult it is to grow up in the city if you are a young African-American male."
The "Black is Human" campaign is just the latest illustration of Burrell's ongoing commitment to present the true black experience in stark and inspiring contrast to the myths and stereotypes that have plagued the African-American community for generations.
Several years ago, Burrell started an initiative called "Father's Day is Every Day" showcasing the positive and reliable presence of African-American dads in the lives of their kids. The TV, radio, print and digital blitz made possible by media donations drew an overwhelming response of support.
"It was just so profound because black men are damned in the media," says Ferguson. "All you hear about is they don't support their families, they're rather absent, etc., and we all look at each other and say, 'that's not the father that I know.' People were truly gratified that someone spoke up for them and the dad they knew."
In addition, Burrell continues to promote a more positive image of African-American women and to enhance their self-esteem through the "My Black is Beautiful" campaign for Procter & Gamble. As Burrell's website describes it, the campaign gives African-American women an "authentic cultural voice that allows them to define and promote their own standard of what it means to be beautiful."
New Heights, Insights
Such initiatives have been at the heart of Ferguson's work since joining Burrell in 1984 as an account supervisor. Making her mark quickly at Burrell, Ferguson became a vice president within two years and earned a steady stream of promotions that eventually put her at the top of the company.
As co-CEO, Ferguson is at the helm of a talented team owning an impressive portfolio of clients that includes Comcast, General Mills, Hilton, McDonald's, Procter & Gamble and Toyota. While about half of her firm's work is for the general market, Burrell's forte is about connecting advertisers to African-American consumers and their distinctive needs and preferences as consumers.
Burrell's insights have moved advertisers from taking a one-race-fits-all marketing approach to a much more informed and customized way to target African-American consumers. Take, for example, the case of Tide detergent. The powerhouse Procter & Gamble brand initially struggled to resonate with black families, relying on the same advertising across all audience. Burrell provided some revealing intelligence that changed the tide of the whole creative approach.
"When we talked to our (African-American) consumers," explains Ferguson, "the reason it was so important for a mom to have her kids wear clean clothes went much deeper (than it did for other consumers). Having a history of being thought of as dirty makes having a clean outward appearance very important. Tapping into that psyche and leveraging it for the client was pretty powerful."
Burrell does extensive homework to uncover such insights, undertaking ethnographies that involve going into people's homes, riding in their vehicles, and shopping with them. "We see what people really do, as opposed to what they say they do," says Ferguson. "And that's the basis for our entire creative development."
As a result, advertising messages targeting African-American consumers are much more relatable as culturally accurate and relevant. For example, Burrell developed a customized version of McDonald's "I'm lovin' it" campaign that leveraged the talents of graffiti artists painting a mural in a "gritty" neighborhood. Flipping the stereotype of gang graffiti, the goodie-wearing artists created a beautiful love image in a spot highlighting the positive aspirations of African-Americans.
"We did all this to the background of Marvin Gaye's 'Inner City Blues,'" says Ferguson. "And it really resonated with both the young and the old." Similarly, in a spot promoting McDonald's Chicken Selects, Burrell employs a female rendition of Otis Redding's "Try a Little Tenderness."
Burrell has also engaged many historically black colleges and universities in promoting the Toyota Green Initiative, which, Ferguson says, brings green technology to campuses and encourages students to recognize the value of green careers as part of being "future forward."
Grounded with Perspective
Burrell's innovative work is well known throughout the industry, evidenced by the numerous and highly regarded advertising awards it has won over several decades. Ferguson has been individually recognized for a host of honors, including Chicago Advertising Woman of the Year and Target Market News Advertising Executive of the Year MAAX Award. And she was recently inducted into the History Makers – the nation's largest African-American video oral history collection housed at the Smithsonian.
Motivated by her desire to "reach back and help others," Ferguson is also heavily involved in personal outreach through nonprofit causes. She has contributed to the City of Chicago Anti-Violence Campaign and actively supports the American Diabetes Association, Ronald McDonald House Charities and the Salvation Army.
Ferguson also gives generously to the By the Hand Club in Chicago, which nurtures "high-risk, inner-city youth" and helps them overcome academic struggles. In fact, she personally funds a student from kindergarten through high school.
Ferguson's own childhood experience inspires her ongoing investment in helping African-American youth. She grew up in a small Indiana community about an hour east of Chicago, where members of her family were the only people of color in her entire elementary school. She says she learned early on the value of education and hard work in overcoming difficult circumstances.
"None of us (at Burrell) grew up with a silver spoon," she says. "So we understood the struggles and sacrifices our parents made to get us an education. I really believe education is the cornerstone to helping people get out of their current environment."
Ferguson earned her Master of Business Administration degree from Indiana University after graduating magna cum laude with a degree in English, speech and drama at Concordia. She says Concordia was instrumental in teaching her to be "thoughtful, curious and to question everything." And it all started with a provocative course she took as a first-year student examining "The Bible as a Myth."
"It was eye-opening and jaw-dropping for me," Ferguson recalls. "While I most likely didn't realize it at the time, the course had a tremendous impact on how I began to approach life in general. And in many ways it brought home what it truly means to have faith."
Today, Ferguson is looking forward to re-engaging with Concordia as a new member with Concordia as a new member of the Board of Regents. She is excited about the opportunity to help the college become more thoughtful and effective in creating a community that more widely serves and features African-Americans.
"My hope is that Concordia can begin to turn the page on diversity and truly have a campus and faculty that more closely mirrors the U.S.," she says. "I honestly believe that the college will benefit from diversity of thought derived from institutionalizing diversity as a way of life."
Achieving diversity comes with complex challenges, but ambitious goals have never intimidated Ferguson. She follows a short and sweet recipe for success: "Take risks. Stay on strategy. Be optimistic. Never stop learning. Lead by example."
Most of all, Ferguson sees hope and purpose in life. "Today is great and tomorrow is going to be even better," she says. "That's something that I've always lived by. If I'm able to help another individual that really charges me. It's what gets me up in the morning and puts a smile on my face."
Originally published in the Spring 2015 Concordia Magazine