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Leo Burnett founded the famous advertising agency that carried his name, as well as “Chicago school of advertising”.
In contrast to the style of Madison Avenue, meaningful images were emphasized over clever copy or catchy slogans. People even talked of the “Burnettization” of American advertising.
Leo Burnett was born in St. Johns, Michigan in 1891, his father was a grocer who designed his own advertisement. After graduating from University of Michigan in 1914, Leo’s first job was a reporter for the Peoria Journal Star.
In 1917, Leo joined Cadillac Motor as an editor for their in-house magazine, he then moved to the company’s advertising department. This is when Leo met his advertising mentor, Theodore F. MacManus who ran the agency that handled Cadillac’s advertising.
Inspired by MacManus who was a great copywriter, advertising became much more than just a job, it became a religion for Leo.
After World War I, Leo joined Homer McKee, an advertising agency as copywriter, this was his first agency job. In 1930, Leo moved to Chicago to join another agency – Erwin, Wasey & Company. After working for a few years there, his clients persuaded him to open his own agency. He took the plunge by mortgaging his house when he was 44.
The Leo Burnett Inc was inaugurated in 1935, he started with 3 clients – Minnesota Valley Canning Company, Realsilk Hosiery, and Hoover. Minnesota Valley is better known as the Green Giant brand later, thanks to the popular mythical character created by Leo Burnett.
Leo went on and acquired many big profile clients like Kellogg’s, Campbell Soup, Procter & Gamble and of course, Marlboro.
At the time when filter cigarettes were regarded as effeminate, Leo was tasked with how to make Marlboro a masculine brand. Besides changing the packaging, Leo Burnett presented a cowboy – a symbol of masculinity, to feature in the advertisement.
The famous Marlboro Man was born, which led to one of the greatest successes in the history of advertising.
His advertising drew from heartland-rooted values using simple, strong and instinctive imagery that talked to people. Leo was known for using “cultural archetypes” in his copy, by creating mythical creatures that represented American values.
Besides Green Giant and Marlboro Man, Leo Burnett had also created many brand characters like Tony The Tiger, Pillsbury Doughboy, etc..
Leo Burnett’s agency has two distinguishing features, a large bowl of red apples at the reception, which were replaced daily. The second feature was the company logo – a hand reaching for the stars. It truly represents Leo Burnett’s creative philosophy.
Always scribbling ideas with his black pencils, Leo was also known as a hard worker, starting his day from 5am until late evenings.
In 1967, Leo Burnett’s billings were nearing $250 million. When his health was declining, Leo communicated to his employees on “When to take my name off the door”.
When to take my name off the door. Somewhere along the line, after I’m finally off the premises, you or your successors, may want to take my name off the premises too.
You may want to call yourselves “Twain, Rogers, Sawyer and Finn, Inc.”, or “Ajax Advertising”, or something. That will certainly be okay with me – if it’s good for you.
But let me tell you when I might demand that you take my name off the door: That will be the day when you spend more time trying to make money and less time making advertising – our kind of advertising.
It was a reminder to always strive for creativity, and if they lost the passion, he demanded the company not to carry his name anymore. Leo worked until the last day of his life, he died at home from a heart attack when he was 79.
Now a part of Publicis Groupe, Leo Burnett is one of the largest agency networks with 85 offices in 69 countries and 9,000+ employees.