Michigander. Richard Heath joined Burnett in 1937 as a VP with a
background that included a stretch as night city editor at the
Detroit Free Press and salesman for Curtis Publishing Co. He was
handsome and gregarious. With an expense account of $1 a meal,
including 20 cents for a martini, Heath managed to lead a modest
pre-war push for new business that would include Brown Shoes, A.B. Dick and Standard Milling, makers of Ceresota flour.
The early years of the agency were spotty and unspectacular-a kind of "quiet fermentation," as one person called it. In 1938, billings inched over the $1 million mark.
Standard histories mark the $2 million American Meat Institute account, gained in July 1940, as the breakthrough in Burnett's march to national stature. But it was the Pure Oil business ("Be Sure With Pure"), acquired in 1938, that made Burnett a player in network radio with newsman H.V. Kaltenborn's "Kaltenborn Edits the News." During the war, Burnett produced and promoted a series of Kaltenborn War Maps for Pure so listeners could follow the geography of battle.
Burnett started to blossom during the '40s. In 1944, it opened a small branch office in New York after adding a merchandising department in Chicago four years earlier. Perhaps as a result the agency began to learn the tricks of merchandising itself. As Leo picked up more local honors, he began assembling his thoughts and making speeches. If an agency's job is to organize mythology, the Leo Burnett Co. worked a textbook case on itself.
Leo knew he was not glamorous and wisely offered no illusions of glamor about advertising in his public statements. Instead, he turned his most obvious weakness into his greatest strength, fashioning himself a personification of the redemptive power of the simple rural virtues of hard work, long hours, short vacations and inconspicuous consumption.
It began to click for several reasons. First, it consciously embraced Chicago's own mythology of broad shoulders and straight talk. Next, in an industry associated with slickness, it set the agency apart with a powerful work-ethic profile. But above all, it fit the man.
From these simple beginnings, a company culture of work took root and began to gain critical mass. It centered on the founder and would hold enormous sway over Burnett lifers. Others it would drive to the exits.
For those who stayed and thrived, it helped considerably that Leo was driven by what he saw as the pure beauty of advertising, not personal wealth. He disparaged "the gray suits and homburgs," the "wisenheimers." Dedicate yourself to making the ads, he said-"our kind of ads"-and the money will take care of itself.
And when it started rolling in, he made good on his word by lavishing it on his employees. In 1943, he set up the profit sharing program that would become the envy of the ad industry. By the early '50s he was paying a stunning 22% of base salary to employees. Then came the bonuses and stock offerings, not a share of which would ever leave the company. Leo made private ownership a core article of faith at Burnett. It still is.
Like most great myths, Leo's was an amplification of fact. But more than anything, his lack of greed persuaded those who hung in with him that this man was for real. It also helped give credibility to Leo's almost Forrest Gump-like notion of himself as a simple copywriter who knew nothing about money or big business and just stumbled into his fortune.
To make sure he never showed too cosmopolitan a face to the world, he kept a file folder of "corny language" in his desk. Even at the height of his personal success and wealth in the '50s and '60s, he pretended not to know or care how big and rich his company had grown. "I'm just an ink-stained wretch," he said.
But he was smart enough to know that he needed the business people, even if he did keep their profiles low. A former Burnett employee once insisted that despite the agency's creative reputation, it was really account management that was behind the agency's success. Talk to a former senior account man such as Gordon Rothrock, however, and you hear another story: "Leo didn't give guys like me the time of day, and I worked with him for 18 years. He kicked the daylights out of me and other account executives."
Neither view necessarily contradicts the other.
Leo Burnett was loyal but not especially sentimental where business was concerned. In 1964, one of his charter clients, Hoover, began selling washer-dryers in the U.S., creating a conflict with the larger but more junior Maytag account (1955). Hoover was the one to get the heave-ho.
He was always seeking new business. Santa Fe Railway came in 1942 followed by Pillsbury two years later and Kellogg in 1949. In November 1957, he ran an ad he called "The Vanishing American" in the Detroit papers, telling workers and management that he wanted a car account. Three months later he got one in Chrysler.
The agency would target and circle potential clients relentlessly, for as long as it took. It spent nearly two years courting United Airlines before shaking most of its $12 million budget loose in 1965.