BURNETT - AN ENDURING CULTURE; AT THE 60-YEAR MARK, THE AGENCY STILL HEWS TO THE ROCK-SOLID VALUES AND PRINCIPLES OF ITS FOUNDER (PART 1/5)

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In August 1988, the Ontario Apple Commission asked Vickers & Benson, a Toronto agency, to do a series of promotional posters. The agency designed the layouts, arranged the photography and, when the shoot was done, brought a load of apples back to the office and invited all to help themselves.

Soon the rumor mill was grinding: Leo Burnett Co. has bought Vickers, the scuttlebutt went. When the phones started ringing, Vickers management was nonplussed-how could anyone get that idea? Then someone finally figured out it was the apples in the reception room.

It took a press release to The Wall Street Journal the next morning to quiet the buzz.

In 1935, apples were peddled on street corners by the down-and-out. They became a symbol of economic hard times. But when Leo Burnett opened his agency that year in Chicago, he put a bowl of red apples in the reception area of his eight-room suite. Maybe it was a gesture of irony - appropriating a symbol of poverty as an expression of anticipated success. More likely it was his way of staring down hard times with sheer optimism and hospitality.

Today, the apple is only part of a vast body of iconography at Burnett that forms the most pervasive and enduring corporate culture in advertising. The presence of Leo Burnett, dead these 24 years, remains palpable in the halls of the agency, where his pictures loom as conspicuously as the framed ads.

The endurance of the Burnett culture confirms a fact not easily acknowledged in a society that venerates individualism: that charismatic leadership is not only temporary, it may be downright counter-productive. Charisma is mortal, but a commitment to a core ideology can be passed on. It can not only guide the founding visionary to his wisdom; it can bequeath systems that will guide successors to wisdom in perpetuity.

Burnett's ideology is eternal, and indoctrination begins early. No one collects a first paycheck without first watching a b&w film of Leo himself at the 1967 company breakfast, delivering a short talk called "When to Take My Name Off the Door" (see story on page LB-38).

And Leo still wins accounts-personally! In 1991, $35 million worth of Sony business was wavering between Burnett and Jerry Della Femina's agency. Mr. Della Femina made his pitch, laced with his usual brio and promises that Sony would have his own hands-on efforts. Then the Burnett team walked in and showed that 25-year-old movie of Leo.

When the account went to Burnett, Mr. Della Femina pondered the uniquely ignominious nature of his loss. "Sony would rather work with Leo dead than me alive," he said.

Leo alive was an easy man to underestimate. That's the way he liked it. In fact, he made sure of it. He had a plump, Hitchcockian silhouette and no physical presence or charisma. His boyhood in turn-of-the-century St. Johns, Mich., was equally bland. He wanted to be a journalist, and when he graduated from the University of Michigan, the stage seemed set. It was 1914 and World War I was about to make many newspaper reputations-but not Leo's. Instead of London or Paris, he ended up in Peoria, where he recognized a career dead-end when he saw it.

But within him was a capacity for work that would drive the Leo Burnett Co. for 36 years. In 1935, at 44, as he stood on the threshold of becoming an entrepreneur, that capacity had already served him well.

By 1915, he had made a lateral move into advertising at Cadillac. He married Naomi Geddes in 1918 and, after the war, joined a group of Cadillac colleagues, bolted the company and formed LaFayette Motor Co.

The auto business was still enough of a cottage industry that a handful of middle managers could start a car company. Leo joined as ad manager and hired Erwin, Wasey & Jefferson in Chicago on the strength of its Goodyear business and a chat with its copy boss, Arthur Kudner (later the K in the Kudner Agency, later Tatham-Laird & Kudner, now Tatham RSCG).

When LaFayette dead-ended, Burnett remained in Indianapolis and spent most of the '20s at a small, but solid, ad agency. He made $15,000 a year and saw his three children born. In 1929, Mr. Kudner, who was then running the New York office of Wasey, invited Burnett to take over the Chicago office.

Over the six years he was there, though, Leo felt marginalized. Radio was surging. The action was in New York. Chicago was becoming an outback in a burgeoning communications industry. Among his more lamentable judgments during that period: that a Chicago ventriloquist named Edgar Bergen had no future in radio.

Still, Leo was by any standard a successful middle-age man whose career had leveled out at a comfortable plateau. New York-based agencies such as J. Walter Thompson Co. and Young & Rubicam, whose radio departments produced the great programs of the era, were the agencies of the stars, Madison Avenue's answer to MGM and Paramount. He might have looked longingly toward New York, but decided his future was in Chicago. He had stars of a different sort in his eyes. Not the kind you ogle but the ones you grab for. In 1935, he made his grab.

"As a symbol of our agency," he told Advertising Age 15 years later, "we adopted the device of a hand reaching for the stars to express the inspiration and aspiration which we hoped to make the guiding spirit of our company. Although we never officially adopted it as our corporate motto, `Reaching for the stars' came to stand for something pretty real in our shop and it still does."

The Leo Burnett Co. was born Aug. 5; a brief item appeared in the Chicago Tribune. The shop's first permanent address was in the London Guarantee Building, 360 N. Michigan Ave.

When Leo left Wasey to form his agency he took five people and three accounts with him. DeWitt O'Kieffe, whom Burnett had met in Indianapolis, and Margaret Stevens were his copy department. John Olson was the agency's first art director. Strother Cary serviced the accounts. And Mary Keating continued as Leo's assistant.

Their lives centered on three clients, each with uncommon personal loyalty to Leo: Minnesota Valley Canning Co., marketers of Green Giant and Niblets vegetables; Hoover Co., which made vacuum cleaners; and Realsilk Hosiery, which went back to Leo's Indianapolis days. Together they made for billings of around $900,000. (As for Leo's former agency, it went on to merge with Ruthrauff & Ryan before disappearing into the Interpublic Group of Cos. in the 1960s.)

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