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February 2014
Creative Visionary
By Barbara Fagan

     Even if you haven’t heard of Burke Communications, Inc., chances are you’ve seen their work. It’s in ads in magazines, in commercials on TV and radio, in websites visited by thousands, in brochures handed out at trade shows, in videos shown in company meetings, in annual reports mailed to shareholders, on billboards dotting the interstate, and even on trucks that drive those interstates.

     With a “client-centric” philosophy and a full suite of services, Burke Communications is one of Charlotte’s leading marketing and design agencies providing innovative solutions in branding, web design, interactive and video production. It’s all about the creative process according to Burke Communications’ founder and the force behind the company’s evolution, CEO and President Jack Burke.

     Much has changed in the 23 years since Burke started the company known first as Burke Computer Designs, but creativity has been a constant theme in the company, in Burke’s life, and as the spark that started and sustains the company.

     Originally from New England, Burke was recruited out of high school to play varsity tennis at UNC Charlotte. His plan was to study architecture but a conflict between studio time for the school of architecture and the tennis team’s practice sessions forced Burke to change course.

     “Tennis was paying for a portion of my education,” says Burke, “so I had to make that a priority. I continued some architecture classes but I ended up pursuing a Bachelor of Creative Arts degree in visual communications and design.

     “My mother is very creative and my father is an interior designer who designs furniture and accessories so I knew I was going to do something creative but I didn’t want to be the proverbial ‘starving artist.’ The question was how to make a viable career being creative?

     “UNC Charlotte had just started their computer graphics so I was in the very first class. I knew the computer could bridge the gap between being an artist and making a living. I could make a career in video production or at an advertising agency doing computer graphics and animation.”

     Burke first attempted to bridge the gap with his senior year assignment to create an art show. “Instead of a traditional art show, I made a video about my life at school. I presented all my artwork on the TV screen. I wrote it, used fraternity friends as actors, shot it, edited and put it on VHS. I even sold tickets and presented it at McKnight Hall on campus.”

     The video Burke titled Videmations became a tool in his job search. “I sent out about 40 VHS tapes of the video to ad companies and animation companies that were looking for designers,” he says.


An Entrepreneurial Start

     An offer came in while he was still in school and after graduation Burke started with an Atlanta company called Imagic where he learned how to make graphics for companies like Oldsmobile using a quarter of a million dollar software system.

     Burke followed Imagic from Atlanta back to Charlotte but when Imagic closed its doors four months later, Burke set his sights on another Charlotte video production company, Southland Video Productions; but Southland’s president, Joe Morgan needed some convincing.

     “Joe’s now a close friends and a mentor of mine,” says Burke, “but when I first met him I told him I needed a job or I was going back to Boston to be a teaching tennis pro. I ended up sitting in his office for a week before he finally said yes.

     “At that time graphics were done on very expensive systems but I told Joe I would prove to him that I could do it on a PC so Joe bought a few PCs, paid me a $15,000 salary and I started the video and graphics for Southland and even designed a new company logo.”

     Burke worked 100 hour weeks, reading books and teaching himself computer animation, eventually submitting work to major publications and ending up providing the front covers for Auto Age, AV Video and Post, among others.

     “I became known in the business as the computer illustration guy,” explains Burke, “and I was only 23.”

     But when Southland ran into financial difficulties, Morgan urged Burke to go out on his own, even helping Burke write up a business plan. “I took all my magazine covers to the banks looking for a $35,000 loan,” Burke explains, “but they all said no, so I used my Sears credit card to get a cell phone and I rented a space on Eighth Street. I had a typewriter, a fax machine, a computer, a TV and an address.

     “I had just opened my doors when I got an offer from IBM in Atlanta for a six month contract making $50,000. It was really hard to turn the offer down but I had so much energy focused in starting the company that I said no.

     “That first year I made about $19,000. I lived off a lot of pizza but I learned how to sell and I made some good relationships with a lot of the ad agencies around town. I was able to work with John Deere. I created opening graphics for TNN (The Nashville Network), On Pit Road, Homelite, and Raycom. Additional animations included Sports South, IBM, Canteen Corporation and the station packages for FOX 57 and WSOC Channel 9.

     “I even did the opening for the Panthers in coordination with WSOC. I was the first one to get the logo from the NFL, so I animated it and had the Panther jump out of the city for the big opening.”

     By 1992, Burke Design Group (as it was named at the time) was growing in capabilities and staff. Then came of the biggest transitions for the company in 1995, when they picked up another client—not another company this time, but a country.

     Burke Design Group became the sub agency for ICEP Portugal in their work promoting investment, trade and tourism. “We made a lot of videos about Portuguese products: shoes, wine, molds, stone and tile,” Burke explains.

     “We did brochures for trade shows and ads for Wine Spectator magazine. I traveled to Portugal to shoot about 14 times. They gave me a lot of creative freedom. I was 25 or 26 and I had no idea what a big opportunity it was. The first website we ever did was I had to hire a person to do it but when they said they needed it, I told them that we would make it happen.”


Jack of All Trades

     Through that experience, Burke learned about a diverse group of industries and it influenced his company philosophy. “I realized I never wanted to be pigeon-holed into doing one sector,” Burke explains. “I did some NASCAR but I stopped after awhile because I didn’t want to get branded as only working in NASCAR or in the automotive industry.

     “I’ve made it a point to never have too much in any one sector. That got us through the economic downturn. The downturn even spurred us to diversify more.”

     Today Burke Communications represents some 70 clients in industries as far ranging as banking, software, health care, industrial, tourism, homebuilding, automotive, food service, retail, education and nonprofit.

     Many clients, like The Corner Pub, Friendship Missionary Baptist Church and CMC Rx Pharmacy, are well known in the local area. But some clients, like Ingersoll Rand, SSI Schaeffer and Doosan, have a national or even international presence.

     And many client relationships are enduring, several going back even to the company’s founding. “I’ve done the marketing and branding for UNC Charlotte’s athletic foundation business since the day I graduated,” says Burke. “We’re in the 10th year of doing their annual report and we did the 3D virtual reality video for what became UNC Charlotte’s James H. Barnhardt Student Activity Center.”

     And while Burke can handle a project as small as designing a logo, some clients—like Anthony & Sylvan Pools—take advantage of Burke’s depth of services.

     “This is our third year working with Anthony & Sylvan Pools,” says Burke. “We’re handling their media, their new marketing message, their events and their VIP Referral program. We worked with them to develop a creative brief that ensures that their message is clear, consistent and on target. We like to see ourselves as connectors; we help them build relationships with their customers.”

     “We’re a national company,” explains Anthony & Sylvan Pools Vice President and CFO Martin Iles, “and historically we’ve had our advertising and promotional activities run on a centralized basis. Our big push was to get more local with our advertising activity and we felt that an agency like Burke would be well equipped to help us with that.

     “In the past when we needed to run an ad, we would run one but it was different from the last one. Burke Communications makes sure our ads are consistent.

     “Marketing is a building exercise. You’ve got to keep building on what you put in place. Burke Communications has worked hard to get us away from a haphazard approach to advertising. The consistent message they’ve provided for us has been very effective.”

     “Burke Communications’ services are added based on client needs,” explains Burke. “For example, we set up websites and can improve a client’s SEO (search engine optimization). We can also help a client start their social media. Usually we’ll set it up and get it going and then coach someone internally to manage it but if that doesn’t work, we’ll step in and do it. Right now, we’re managing the social media for eight of our clients.”

     The growing spectrum of services led to the company’s last rebranding to Burke Communications in 2007. “We’re doing so much more now,” explains Burke. “I’ve brought on art directors and video editors and a marketing director. We’re a full creative agency group. We still do our own in-house video editing. We might be the only agency left in town that still has that capability in-house.”


Trophy Case

     Vice President, Director of Account Services Amy Dusseault, with the company for five years, oversees and manages the agency’s accounts. “We’ve really started to come out creatively in the past couple of years,” she says. “We’ve received some industry recognition with the ADDYs, Marcoms and Tellys we’ve won recently.”

     ADDY awards celebrate excellence in advertising and are awarded annually in a competition sponsored by the American Advertising Federation. In 2012 and 2013 Burke Communications won three Charlotte ADDYs: one for its web design for The Corner Pub, another for its work on Doosan’s Infracore Portable Power Video and a third for the company’s print advertising for the Carolinas Poison Center.

     The Carolinas Poison Control ad campaign “Sharing Pills Can Kill” is indicative of Burke Communications’ community involvement and holds a special personal significance for Burke. “My son was 14 when we worked on it and I was shocked to learn that the misuse of prescription drugs is a growing cause of death among kids his age. It was a personal message that felt true to my heart,” he says.

     Burke Communications has also been recognized with the prestigious American Graphic Design Award in website design for their Domtar Cougar Paper Community website. And in 2012 The Charlotte Business Journal ranked Burke Communications in its top five web design firms in the Charlotte area.

     Community involvement is a big theme for Burke Communications. In 2007, Burke established a 501(c)(3) nonprofit called a Big Heart Foundation which supports children’s causes in the region. The foundation’s logo was drawn by Burke’s daughter, now age nine, and to date the foundation has raised more than $130,000 for the local Toys for Tots program through its annual golf tournament and other efforts.

     As far as the future of the company, Burke predicts further evolution into a creative boutique agency. “I’m trying to refocus, develop our new company vision and maximize our internal creative talents led by my art director of 10 years, Mariana Rojas. We want to do more specialty advertising, branding and messaging with measurable results. We like going on a journey with our clients. We want to tell a client’s story with a unique twist.

     “The way we differentiate ourselves is our expertise, our talented employees and our technology—but mostly it’s our imagination and creativity as a team,” Burke explains. “All I ever wanted was the ability to be creative and do my artwork. That’s why I started the agency.”


Barbara Fagan is a Greater Charlotte Biz freelance writer.
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