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Leo Burnett is among the world's best-known agency brands, now part of Publicis Groupe. In its heyday it was responsible for creating what has become known as the "Chicago School" of advertising, which made a virtue of simplicity and clarity, and was most strongly defined by the use of brand mascots, fictional characters who were used to personify individual brands. Uncle Ben, the Jolly Green Giant, Tony the Tiger, the Pillsbury Dough-Boy and the Marlboro Man were all Burnett inventions. The agency capped the 1990s with a showstopping deal which combined the forces of three major agency groups. In 1999, Burnett's acquired D'Arcy parent MacManus, stealing that business from under Interpublic's nose for $1bn; then sold a 20% stake in the combined group to Japanese giant Dentsu for a rumoured $400m to create one of the world's biggest marketing groups, named Bcom3. The final twist came in 2002 with capture of Bcom3 by Publicis, and the subsequent merger of the D'Arcy network into Burnett. In 2007, Leo Burnett merged with below-the-line unit Arc Worldwide under a single management team, although it continues to use both names. It remains one of the world's most admired creative agency brands, with a reputation for witty, imaginative and emotionally resonant advertising. However, since 2016, it has been increasingly intertwined with other Publicis-owned creative agencies under the umbrella of Publicis Communications. In some countries the Leo Burnett name has been phased out altogether in favour of the Publicis One brand.
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Leo Burnett is one of the senior brands within the middle tier of international agency networks, with a balanced reputation for consistently good (often great) creative work underpinned by skilled account management. It ranks among the leading agencies on its home turf, but sits within the middle tier or below in most international markets. Creatively, it usually figures among the top five networks in terms of awards. It was the 4th most awarded network worldwide in 2011, 2012 and 2013, according to Gunn Report global rankings, rising to #3 in 2014 and then #2 for 2015. Performance in 2019 was rather less starry. The network came 20th in what are now the WARC Creative rankings.
Leo Burnett is positioned as an agency which specialises in "icon brands", or "ideas that inspire enduring belief", and indeed, more even than that other founder-created advertising brand Ogilvy, Burnett has always leaned heavily on its own iconic heritage. It makes considerable use of its own icon brand, Leo Burnett himself, his various aphoristic sayings, his black mark-up pencils, and the much-quoted story about apples (see below).
The network's new business performance is generally solid though not perhaps spectacular; in 2011 it captured the US Sprint Nextel account, one of its biggest client wins for several years, though this was later lost. UK supermarket group The Co-op was a significant win in 2012, followed by Australia's Woolworths chain in 2014 (lost two years later). Key global clients include Procter & Gamble, McDonald's, Kellogg's, selected General Motors business in North America, and Fiat in Europe.
Now firmly part of the Publicis Groupe, Leo Burnett operates a network of more than 200 operating units around the world, including 96 full-service advertising agencies in 84 countries. Including marketing services subsidiaries, Advertising Age estimated consolidated worldwide revenues of $1.21bn in 2018. However, like all other Publicis Groupe networks, Burnett's offices in less economically significant markets are being consolidated from 2016 onwards into a single combined Publicis ONE unit that will represent all Groupe-owned agency brands. In theory, that process will ultimately reduce Leo Burnett's branded footprint to no more than 20 countries.
Leo Burnett's main US agency is still located in its traditional home city of Chicago, although there is also an outpost in Detroit. This office joined the family in 2003 as a result of the break-up of the D'Arcy network. Although most of D'Arcy was absorbed into sister network Publicis Worldwide, D'Arcy's Detroit office was aligned with Leo Burnett, initially under the name Chemistri. It eventually adopted the Leo Burnett Detroit name in 2005. That change was not enough to protect the flagship Cadillac account, which departed the agency a year later, although Burnett has retained a sizeable chunk of GM's other business. Standalone shop LBWorks was created out in 2001 in a rebranding of what was previously Leo Burnett Technology Group, and picked up a number of niche consumer accounts including Gateway computers and Starbucks. However by 2003 the shop was perceived to be weakening the core Leo Burnett offering, and was reabsorbed into the main Chicago agency at the end of the year. Key clients for Leo Burnett Chicago include P&G, McDonald's, Kellogg's and Allstate. Leo Burnett New York was for several years primarily an administrative centre, coordinating international network accounts such as Samsung. In 2009, Burnett absorbed the New York office of group-owned corporate and financial advertising agency Masius. The combined unit grew in stature after 2011 as a result of local account wins, but it remained much smaller than the main Chicago HQ. It was downgraded again in 2015, to focus on B2B clients under the name Leo Burnett Business, but was later quietly closed. A Los Angeles office was established in 2012 to serve as a hub for the agency's global Samsung account, but this too was downgraded to a service office in 2016. The US group also houses a number of specialist units offering a variety of below-the-line services including social media, design, PR, experiential and content creation. Advertising Age estimated combined revenues for Leo Burnett USA (including Arc) of $425m (or 35% of global revenues) in 2018. Leo Burnett Toronto is the main office in Canada (see also Leo Burnett Canada), and the network is represented in Montreal by Francophone affiliate Martel.
Burnett also has a 35% stake in San Francisco's Amazon Advertising, which specialises in marketing to women. Also sitting under the Leo Burnett USA umbrella is multicultural agency Lapiz, which focuses on the Hispanic market. The group announced the creation of a specialist luxury goods unit within the main agency in 2006. The first offices of what is now Atelier opened in London, New York and Tokyo, to be followed by Buenos Aires, Beirut and Shanghai. The group acquired Anglo-American design agency Turner Duckworth in 2014. US digital agency Rokkan was acquired by Publicis Groupe in 2012, and is also now aligned with Leo Burnett.
Leo Burnett Asia Pacific is headquartered in Hong Kong and comprises 24 offices in 16 countries. In 2000 Burnett amalgamated its interests in Japan with those of partner D'Arcy to form Beacon Communications, in which Dentsu also has a stake. The agency is also a leading player in Australia (Leo Burnett Australia), Korea (Leo Burnett Korea) and China. It acquired a controlling stake in Chinese sales promotion and field marketing agency Yong Yang in 2007, and purchased digital agency EmporioAsia in 2008. Leo Burnett Greater China was further strengthened with the purchase of Beijing agency W&K Communications, now Leo Burnett Beijing Communications. In Latin America, there are offices in 18 central and south American countries, anchored by Leo Burnett Brazil and Leo Burnett Argentina.
EMEA is Leo Burnett's most extensive region, covering some 46 markets. The key territories here are inevitably the UK and France (see Leo Burnett London and Leo Burnett Paris). Leo Burnett Germany was formed from the acquisition of the Luerzer/Conrad agency in 1980, and was known for many years as Michael Conrad & Leo Burnett despite the subsequent retirement of Conrad himself, latterly chief creative officer for the whole network. In 2019, however, Publicis announced that it would consolidate most local creative advertising under the Saatchi & Saatchi banner. The Leo Burnett banner will be used only for international clients. The group also works in Germany under the banner of Ignition Group. Leo Burnett Italy includes specialist units Leo Travel, an events and conference organizer; and production house Miracle, as well as Bcube, a splinter agency founded in 2006 to handle marketing for mobile operator 3. In 2002, the agency gave its backing to Spillmann/Felser/Leo Burnett, a new Swiss agency founded by a group of senior managers from Advico/Y&R. It acquired full control of the agency, now Leo Burnett Switzerland, in 2011 after several years as a minority shareholder. In late 2003 the group shut its main agency in Norway, after several account losses. It is now represented in that market by Kitchen, in which it holds a minority stake, and has various other outposts in Scandinavia. In another cost-saving exercise, Leo Burnett's presence in the Netherlands was merged in 2010 with that of Saatchi & Saatchi, also owned by Publicis Groupe. The jointly branded Saatchi & Saatchi Leo Burnett Netherlands agency is now run by a single management team. In South Africa, the local office of Burnett merged in April 2014 with admired independent shop Owen Kessel, acquired by Publicis Groupe a few months earlier, to create Owen Kessel Leo Burnett.
The Leo Burnett group offers a wider range of marketing services through below-the-line subsidiary Arc Worldwide. This has gradually evolved from the amalgamation of a series of previously separate units. During 2003 Leo Burnett merged all of its own digital, direct and database marketing units into a new global network, iLeo, with a presence in more than 27 countries. In a further consolidation, the US iLeo office was itself in turn folded into separate network Arc - then mainly composed of the former marketing services operations of the D'Arcy network - at the beginning of 2004, alongside sales promotion shop Frankel and digital agency Semaphore Partners. The relationship between the main Leo Burnett agency and Arc Worldwide has grown steadily closer, and at the end of 2006, management responsibility for the two networks was effectively merged under a single global board. They effectively now operate as a single business. In a further development during 2011 some offices of Arc were hived off into a separate network under the name Alpha 245, still under the Leo Burnett umbrella. This process was initiated in Asia Pacific markets, but has been gradually extended into European markets as well.
Until recently, global public relations network Manning Selvage & Lee also operated as a unit of Leo Burnett, inherited from the old D'Arcy business. Acquired by D'Arcy forerunner Benton & Bowles in 1979, it absorbed Leo Burnett's PR division as well in 2001. In 2005 it was transferred into a new group within Publicis, named Publicis Public Relations & Corporate Communications.
Of all of the US ad industry legends, Leo Burnett's is one of the most enduring. Almost 40 years after the founder's death, rival agencies complain that Burnett's can still swing a pitch by showing a 50-year-old film of the master himself explaining his advertising philosophy. This is even more astonishing considering that Burnett himself was hardly a dynamic or attractive figure - short, rumpled, usually covered in cigarette ash, with a large paunch, double chin and prominent lower lip. In person, he often appeared distracted. According to a memorable anecdote, he emerged one day from Chicago’s train station, deep in thought about a particular client’s advertising, got into a cab and asked the driver to take him to the 15th floor. When called upon to deliver unprepared remarks, he was oddly inarticulate, and sometimes inaudible. "The most imposing voice Leo Burnett can muster to this day," said copy chief William Tyler in 1949, "is a medium-low mumble with a slight gurgling overtone."
But Burnett's approach to advertising set a distinct style, the so-called "Chicago school", named after the city where the agency established itself. Its key virtues were simplicity and drama. "There is an inherent drama in every product," Burnett claimed. "Our job is to dig for it and capitalize on it." In many cases this meant encouraging an emotional bond between consumers and his clients' products, by creating a visual symbol that would leave consumers with a "brand picture engraved on their consciousness". Burnett did this most successfully with a series of friendly iconic characters: the Jolly Green Giant, the Pillsbury Dough-boy, Tony the Tiger or the Marlboro Man. But sometimes this visual symbolism was embodied in other ways. In a 1945 press campaign for the American Meat Institute for example, the agency broke the unwritten rule that said that the depiction of uncooked meat in advertising was distasteful. "We convinced ourselves that the image of meat should be a virile one, best expressed in red meat." Instead Burnett's ads showed thick slices of raw red meat set against a bright red background. "Red against red was a trick," he explained, "but it was a natural thing to do. It just intensified the red concept and the virility and everything else we were trying to express. This was inherent drama in its purest form."
Leo Burnett was born in 1892 in a small town in Michigan and spent his childhood helping out in the family's dry goods store, for which he composed and hand-lettered advertising billposters. After graduating from the University of Michigan, he began a career in journalism, spending time as a police reporter, and eventually, from around 1915, as editor of the house magazine for Cadillac. There he worked under the already celebrated Theodore MacManus (who went on to form the MacManus agency, later part of DMB&B). Burnett moved on from Cadillac after a year or two, serving time in a small agency in Indianapolis, before accepting a job as creative head of Erwin Wasey in Chicago, a city then bristling with resentment over New York’s meteoric rise to become the de facto capital of the American ad industry.
The early success of FCB forerunner Lord & Thomas during the 1910s had established Chicago as America's first advertising capital, but that title had begun to transfer to New York before that end of the decade. By the 1930s, Chicago was placed a distant second to its rival city, and attempted to make up for that fact with an edgy defensiveness. Draper Daniels, an executive who had moved from New York initially to head up the Chicago office of Y&R summed up the difference between the two cities thus: "A Chicago advertising man, after working two days and two nights on a rush job, will tell you he worked on it four days and four nights. A New Yorker, after working two days and two nights on a rush job, will try to make you believe he did it on the back of an envelope while riding to work on the train."
By 1935, a steady stream of talented executives were being tempted away from Erwin Wasey and other Chicago agencies to better jobs in New York. Most seriously of all, Wasey president Don Kudner himself jumped ship, taking the Buick account with him. Burnett felt it was too late to make that move himself, especially after he was turned down for a job by Benton & Bowles as copy supervisor, and he resigned himself to his situation. It took his friend and protégé Dewitt (Jack) O’Kieffe to inspire him to action. O’Kieffe told Burnett that he had himself been accepted by Benton & Bowles, and that he would take that position in New York unless Leo himself quit and set up his own agency.
Yet the omens hardly seemed promising. Burnett was no spring chicken, already 42, and hardly the model of a thrusting young entrepreneur. Yet he did have a clear idea about the sort of advertising he wanted to produce. "There is entirely too much dull advertising," he complained in an article in trade magazine Printers Ink in 1936. "Pages and pages of dull, stupid, interesting copy that does not offer the reader anything in return for his time taken reading it." According to industry legend, to brighten up the new office of The Leo Burnett Company on its first day of business, the receptionist put a bowl of apples on front desk. When word got around Chicago that Leo Burnett was serving apples to his visitors, a newspaper columnist joked, "It won’t be long till Leo Burnett is selling apples on the street corner instead of giving them away." For years afterwards, apples became the agency's trademark although their colour changed from the red apples favoured by Burnett himself to the green ones used by the agency today. The master's touch is also still visible in the company's logo, which symbolizes his much-quoted maxim, "When you reach for the stars, you may not quite get one, but you won't come up with a handful of mud either."
Burnett and his team started with three clients they brought with them from Erwin Wasey: Realsilk Hosiery, Hoover and the Minnesota Valley Canning Company. These were all small accounts, so they set out to capture a bigger beast, and set their caps at Hershey, America's best-selling confectioner but renowned as a company that didn’t advertise. Convinced it was just a question of delivering better copy, Burnett and O’Kieffe made a trip to Hershey to present. They were received politely, but got no business. They had a similar reception back in Chicago at Wrigley. After a full year in business, The Leo Burnett Company had failed to win a single new account.
Yet gradually, Burnett's existing accounts were beginning to look promising. The agency's work for Minnesota Valley Canning Company quickly became a family favourite. One of that client's main brands was a line of tinned vegetables which it marketed under the name Green Giant. Burnett conceived a new approach for the company, and came up with a friendly green giant character. The same personality-driven approach led to the creation of the Pillsbury Dough-boy and Tony the Tiger in the 1950s. Burnett also greatly enhanced the potential of the agency by recruiting Richard Heath, formerly the star advertising sales director for Ladies Home Journal, as EVP. Heath was the virtual opposite of Burnett, a tall, handsome and genial salesman. "Leo wrote the gospel," said Draper Daniels, later chairman of Burnett's executive committee, "but Dick Heath preached it to the heathen. Together they did what neither of them could have done alone."
But it was the campaign for Marlboro which lifted Burnett's into the upper ranks of the industry. Philip Morris was on the verge of ditching its unsuccessful new women's cigarette, but gave Leo Burnett one last chance to save it. Encouraged by the sudden emergence of a distinct men's market in the early 1950s - Playboy magazine had launched the previous year with considerable success - Burnett advised Philip Morris to abandon the brand's previous image altogether, and repackage Marlboro as a rugged man's smoke. (See Marlboro profile for more). Introduced in New York in 1955, the new Marlboro became the top-selling filtered cigarette almost literally overnight.
The huge success of Marlboro attracted other important clients, including Maytag appliances and United Airlines in 1955, and Allstate Insurance and Star-Kist tuna in 1957. By the end of that decade, Leo Burnett had entered the rarefied heights as the biggest agency outside New York, with billings exceeding $100m. Yet the agency still prided itself on doing things differently from its Madison Ave counterparts. For years, Burnett refused to open a full agency in New York, arguing that "Ideas don't know where they are born." Burnett also paid no attention to research, then the backbone of agencies such as McCann, JWT and Y&R, and practically went out of his way to utilise techniques which Gallup said didn’t work, such as copy over tint blocks or pictures. Burnett's approach to advertising was almost entirely instinctive, driven by gut feeling not market research. Unlike other evangelists of advertising, Burnett did not attempt to educate his audience or talk down to it. To him, consumers were Ordinary Joes just like him. "I like to think that we Chicago ad-makers are all working stiffs," he said in a 1967 interview with Advertising Age. "I like to imagine that Chicago copywriters spit on their hands before picking up the big, black pencils.”
Indeed Burnett himself was rarely separated from his own thick black pencil, with which he marked up subordinates' work and which often left characteristic lead smudges on his fingers and face. (In recent years, this has replaced a green apple as a symbol of the agency). He played an unrelentingly central role within the agency, sitting in on almost all creative meetings, so much so that many junior employees felt undervalued and underutilised. The company’s senior management committee, known as the Plans Board, held regular meetings to review the work of the creative department. Yet most of the work submitted was routinely rejected and sent back to be done again. "Once," according to Draper Daniels, "he killed a campaign simply by remaining silent for several painful minutes and finally mumbling, 'I’m afraid what's wrong with it is that it is merely good'". This was often disheartening for junior creatives, but few could argue with the brilliance of the corrections and changes Burnett made.
He certainly didn’t show the same autocratic style as Marion Harper over at McCann, but he was just as driven. It was generally understood at the agency that the only holiday the boss ever took was Christmas, and he invariably worked late into the night at the office during the week, and in his study at home over weekends, despite the demands of his wife and family. "It must be disconcerting for three highly intelligent children to see their father only if they happen to get up for a glass of water during the night,” recounted copy chief William Tyler in advertising & Selling magazine. Yet together with DDB and O&M, Burnett's was regarded as one of the pioneers of the new form of creative advertising that was gradually dominating the industry. Burnett was himself generous with the respect he felt for his younger peers. At one point, he wrote a note to David Ogilvy saying "I guess half my 'Ads Worth Saving' file is composed of tearsheets of ads from your shop and Bill Bernbach's. If I weren’t getting so darned old, I think I would probably start my own agency."
As Leo Burnett's US clients expanded their presence overseas during the 1960s and 1970s, the agency went with them. In 1962, a London office was set up when the company bought into UK agency Leggett Nicholson. Back home, Burnett strengthened its hold on key client General Motors in 1967 by acquiring Detroit agency DP Brother & Co, who handled GM's' Oldsmobile brand. Other key developments were the acquisition in 1969 of the London Press Exchange, a network of 20 agencies in Europe, Asia and Latin America, followed by Australia's Jackson Wain in 1970. Additional satellites followed. By the time Leo Burnett himself died in 1971, his agency was the world's fifth largest, with 39 offices around the globe and billings of more than $400m. In 1980, Burnett's German office merged with local creative shop Luerzer & Conrad to form Luerzer, Conrad & Leo Burnett, later Michael Conrad & Leo Burnett. Demonstrating that its power to conceive personality icons was in no way diminished, Leo Burnett USA conceived crash test dummies Vince and Larry for a Department of Transportation safety campaign in 1985. The characters developed a life of their own outside the ads, and even went on to spawn their own range of toys and an animated cartoon series.
To protect its market position during the 1990s, the agency began to establish partnerships with like-minded agencies or marketing services companies in the US and overseas. Spanish agency Vitruvio was acquired in 1990, and seven years later the group purchased a 49% holding in highly regarded UK agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty. In fact 1997 was very much a turning point for the group. Still independent in an age of consolidation, Burnett's saw a few of its most loyal clients attracted elsewhere by the broader range of services offered by Omnicom and Interpublic. At the same time, creative output in the US had begun to suffer. The loss of United Airlines and of Burnett's lead role on the $300m McDonalds US account were major blows, as were the departure of Miller Lite, Kellogg's Raisin Bran and Samsonite luggage. This resulted in a boardroom coup which led to the removal of CEO Bill Lynch and COO Jim Jenness. Group chairman and former CEO Richard Fizdale took back the latter role and the resulting improvement in the company's fortunes was visible.
The following year was an important and eventful one. To make the company quicker on its feet, Leo Burnett USA was carved up into seven mini-agencies in 1997, each with its own account handling, creative and management functions. Known as the "alphabet agencies", Agency A, Agency B and through to G worked as dedicated units on specific accounts. Proof that the system worked came when the agency won back the Heinz Tomato Ketchup account it had lost five years earlier. (However, other clients became increasingly frustrated with the alphabet structure and it was eventually phased out in 1999). Also in 1997, the agency rebranded its US media department as Starcom, and began rolling out that brand worldwide. A year later the group came close to a global merger of Starcom with MacManus's like-minded MediaVest division, but the deal collapsed at the last minute after disagreements over the structure of the US division of the new company.
A few months later, the group emphasised its continuing independence by forming a separate holding company, the Leo Group, to manage the Leo Burnett network, Starcom and the holding in BBH as separate entities. As a result, no one expected November 1999's bombshell, in which Leo Burnett was revealed as the architect behind a three-way deal with MacManus and Dentsu. The deal was formalised early in 2000, and at the end of the year Burnett turned a new page, appointing its first female head, in the form of Linda Wolf, previously head of the North American business. But the ink had barely dried on the page before Bcom3 was in turn gobbled up by Publicis. The network was greatly enhanced by its subsequent absorption of D'Arcy, which was folded into Leo Burnett in most territories worldwide.
At the end of its first year under Publicis ownership, the agency was shaken up by several senior management changes. Both Bob Brennan, the agency's worldwide president, and COO Stephen Gatfield left the network abruptly in September 2003. Tom Bernadin was recruited from Lowe in early 2004 to become CEO of Leo Burnett North America and worldwide president. He replaced Linda Wolf as chairman & CEO of Leo Burnett Worldwide following her retirement at the end of April 2005. North American chief creative officer Cheryl Berman left in 2006, and was replaced by Susan Credle.
From 2016, Leo Burnett became a subsidiary of Publicis Communications, the umbrella division within the wider Groupe that oversees all creative agencies. Tom Bernadin stepped down as global CEO of Leo Burnett at the beginning of that year. Rich Stoddart, previously CEO North America, was appointed as global president, Leo Burnett. However, he too departed the agency at the beginning of 2018, and was not directly replaced. Leo Burnett global chief creative officer Mark Tutssel was appointed as chairman of Publicis Communications' creative board, and became executive chairman of Leo Burnett in January 2018. However, he too departed in summer 2019. Liz Taylor joined from FCB as global chief creative officer, but there is now no dedicated global non-creative leadership, with all such duties now managed by umbrella company Publicis Communications. Former Starcom Mediavest leader Andrew Swinand rejoined Publicis Groupe in early 2017 to take over Stoddart's old role as CEO, North America.
Last full revision 30th January 2019
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