Leo Burnett, Ad Legend

by | Apr 18, 2020

Leo Burnett studied journalism at the University of Michigan. His dream was to become the publisher of The New York Times. He graduated in 1914 and his first job was in Peoria, IL, where he worked as a newspaper reporter on the crime beat.

Burnett soon thereafter moved to Detroit and went to work on the client-side at GM. Burnett edited a publication for Cadillac dealers called Cadillac Clearing House. His mentor and boss at Cadilac, Theodore McManus, a fan of long copy, was a legend in his own right.

Burnett eventually joined the agency business in Indianapolis where he worked at Homer McKee on the Lafayette Motor Car Company account for most of the 1920s. The Great Depression disrupted all that. Homer McKee lost accounts and Burnett moved with his wife and three children to Chicago to find work.

He found work and new creative partners. On August 5, 1935, Leo Burnett, who was 42 years old at the time, opened the Leo Burnett Company in Chicago. The agency started with eight creatives (no account people) and $12,000, which Burnett raised by selling his house and hocking his insurance policies.

He took BIG risks to open his agency. He was brave.

Burnett Wisely Used Narrative Archetypes and Agrarian-Based Myths in His Work

Burnett was trained as a storyteller. First, as a journalist, then this practice was furthered at GM. It was this framework that naturally led Burnett to create his own timeless characters for packaged goods brands—Tony the Tiger, the Jolly Green Giant, the Marlboro Man, Charlie the Tuna, and the Pillsbury Doughboy.

Yesterday, I pulled up an old tv spot from Burnett’s reel. Push play and hear me discuss the elements of this ad, and why they continue to matter today.

The friendly giant overseeing the safety and well-being of the farm is also an effective means to a difficult end: getting kids to eat their vegetables.

Burnett Was A Good Boss

Leo Burnett left an amazing legacy and the agency with his name on the door continues to be a powerful force in the industry.

Significantly for the time, Burnett put women into creative positions of power and let them fight it out with the “boys.” He also railed against ageism in advertising. He once wrote a memo to the staff about it, declaring that the business was not the prerogative of the young. Instead, it belonged to those who worked the hardest.

He Knew Where To Look and How To Solve

Burnett worked hard to see inside the problem. He looked deep inside the product, the company, and the experience that customers had with the company. He searched for the inherent tension in the product story. It’s something he learned years earlier from McManus and continued to deploy throughout his career.

To look inside the product counters the idea that the creative solution is out there somewhere waiting to be discovered. Burnett believed that the magic was inside the product and that advertising’s job was to magnify the product benefits in a larger than life way. I find this approach comforting because it helps immensely when you know where to look for answers to creative problems.

Apples All Day

Since the start of Leo Burnett the ad agency, a bowl of red apples has been part of the welcome that staff and guests receive upon arrival.

Speaking of arrivals, Chicago in 1935 was not the perfect place for a future Ad Legend to be. Or so said a Windy City journalist at the time. “It won’t be long ’til Leo Burnett is selling apples on the street corner instead of giving them away,” the man wrote. Journos can be such windbags sometimes.

I love that Burnett’s bowl of apples is both a vehicle to express generosity and a symbol of defiance.

His Name Remains

When Burnett retired, he also left his agency teams with a speech to top all speeches. In the speech, Burnett specifically calls for his name to be removed from the premises, if/when the place no longer cherishes ideas and the people who have them.

The man describes several conditions of decay that could ruin everything he’d built. This is the core of his concern right here: “When you begin to compromise your integrity, when you lose your humility, and when you stop building on strong and vital ideas and start a routine production line…”

Based on those three conditions, one might argue that Leo Burnett’s name should have come off the door years ago. Burnett’s agency and all agencies with a global footprint are, at least in part, routine production lines.

The “lonely man” who Burnett wanted to see protected from the incessant and unrealistic demands of today’s clients is not. Today’s lonely men and women have Tweets to write, influencers to influence, and so on, so there’s little time to build on strong and vital ideas. There’s just time to produce more content for the always-on content parade.

Where Will Bravery Take You?

Burnett was a bold thinker, but unassuming in his demeanor and ruffled in his appearance. Today, we think of him as a standard-bearer, but I want us to stop doing this. He was a rogue, a troublemaker, a questioner, and a never-settler. When breadlines wrapped around city blocks in Chicago, and things looked bleak in every direction, Burnett brought optimism and a new vision forward in advertising. By doing so, he changed the business forever.

With Leo B. as a guide, let me ask, what will you help to create in this new economic downturn?

What needs to be disrupted that you and your team can properly fix? My bet is there’s something right in front of you to rework.

Let me know how it goes and how I can help.