Leo Burnett Execs Unravel How Humans Connect With and Process Advertising

Martin Bihl Reviews 'Humankind'

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Leo Burnett once said of advertising "Make it simple. Make it memorable. Make it inviting to look at. Make it fun to read." "Humankind," by the current Chairman-CEO and Chief Creative Officer of that venerable adman's namesake agency is all of those things, and more. But, occasionally, it's also a little less.

Of course, it would be disingenuous to discuss a book produced by two principals of an agency that discusses that agency's unique perspective and approach, without acknowledging that , regardless of whatever benefits or insights the reader can glean from it, there is an element that is clearly designed to generate new business. And I don't think Leo Burnett's Chairman-CEO Tom Bernardin or Chief Creative Officer Mark Tutssel would dispute this. Who among us did not see the success that Kevin Roberts had with "Lovemarks," a book that "Humankind" shares not only a publisher with but also something of size, design and shape.

Thus, "Humankind" is a way for Messrs. Bernardin and Tutssel to redefine their agency. Moving away from images of the rumpled Midwesterner and his legacy of jolly green giants, enthusiastic tigers and rugged cowboys, to something that reflects the way humans connect with and process advertising today. And while the authors do cite Mr. Burnett's quotation about the nature of advertising, by and large he is absent from the book.

What is not absent, however, are marketing concepts of a really exceptional quality from Leo Burnett's worldwide offices. Concepts like the Hope stores that the agency developed for the Red Cross in Portugal as a way to completely re-frame for the public the idea of charitable giving. Or like the McDonald's out-of -home campaign that featured sundials and turned a video billboard into a tourist attraction. Or like Earth Hour for the World Wildlife Fund that engaged, well, the planet Earth.

But it is the authors' intention not to merely wow you with cool concepts but to help you understand the thinking behind them. So what is "Humankind"? At its root it appears to be an approach, a belief that "modern-day communication needs to be rooted in a fundamental human need." An approach that "doesn't interrupt people, it involves them." More importantly, however, it seems to be focused on the idea of creating advertising that has a purpose. "Purpose" Messrs. Bernardin and Tutssel say, "shifts a product from what it does to what it means." In other words, it moves the conversation from a discussion of what the seller wants to tell you, to what the buyer needs.

Messrs. Bernardin and Tutssel, however, admit that not every idea gets there. To figure out which ones do, they have developed something called the Global Product Committee, which meets every quarter to evaluate the work. And if all "Humankind" did was remind us that post-mortems are important, it would have provided a valuable service.

Of course, it does more than that . Because they actually show you the process and the criteria, with actual comments on work that did -- and didn't -- make the grade. Not only is this transparency appealing, but it gives readers a ready-made methodology for evaluating and improving their own work.

This is when "Humankind" is at its best, delivering useful tools and inspiring us to approach the challenges we face in new and refreshing ways. When it's less good, however, is when it reads like merely an agency portfolio. And while I'm as happy as any other Creative Director to look at someone's portfolio, I am probably less happy to plunk down $30 for the privilege.

But those are, frankly, minor complaints. Because perhaps the most compelling and exciting thing about "Humankind" -- the book, the work and the vision -- is that none of the ideas celebrated here are media specific. These are not digital ideas. These are not TV ideas. These are not promotional ideas. These are human ideas; human ideas that engage human beings via the media that resonate with them. That kind of thinking bodes well for the future of advertising. Now we just have to find clients and creatives who can make it happen.

Martin Bihl is creative director-founder at 7419. You can contact him at martinbihl@yahoo.com.
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