Mr. Stoddart has been under pressure to reverse difficult new-business trends at the iconic Chicago agency, which said goodbye to major accounts from the U.S. Army, Maytag and, just last week, Altoids, prompting the Chicago Sun-Times to speculate earlier this week that he could be ousted by the end of the month.
But Leo Burnett Worldwide CEO Tom Bernardin strongly disputed that report in a feisty memo distributed to the agency Jan. 8. Mr. Stoddart, he wrote, would not be leaving the agency "at the end of this month or any other month, period."
Indeed, a January ouster date would be a bit odd, seeing as Mr. Stoddart -- formerly CEO of Leo Burnett USA -- only this month will assume his new co-president job alongside former Burnett Latin America Chief Juan Carlos Ortiz, and the two leaders' responsibilities have yet to be completely defined. The shift to a co-presidency model coincided with a move, announced last month, to more closely align Burnett with direct-marketing sibling Arc Worldwide.
In his memo, Mr. Bernardin described the Sun-Times report as unprofessional, "mean-spirited" and "groundless," and described its unnamed source as "either a liar, a disgruntled employee or someone who has been fired."
Columnist declines comment
Sun-Times Marketing Columnist Lewis Lazare, who wrote the column, declined to comment except to note that he relied on multiple sources in his reporting.
Mr. Bernardin also took issue with criticism that the agency's recent smallish account wins -- including KraftMaid cabinetry's $4 million marketing communications account -- were "embarrassing" to a shop that has long been synonymous with mega-clients such as Kellogg, Procter & Gamble and Philip Morris.
"While Rich himself ... said he's not satisfied with the agency's new-business track record, I would hardly characterize our expanding relationships with the Coca-Cola Co. or pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca, or the win of P&G's Herbal Essence, as 'embarrassing,'" Mr. Bernardin wrote. "What's more, the agency pulled in several new assignments in the last few weeks, including KraftMaid with more good news to be announced shortly."
Mr. Bernardin did express disappointment with Burnett's recent loss of creative duties for Wm. Wrigley Jr. Co.'s Altoids, which has been a highly awarded creative showcase for the agency for more than a decade, to sibling Publicis & Hal Riney. Wall Street analysts have repeatedly noted that Altoids sales have failed to justify the premium price Wrigley paid to acquire the brand from Kraft Foods in 2004, which Mr. Bernardin seemed to hint at in his memo. "I'll stand on our record of achievement with that client and let others speculate, given our record, on that move," he wrote.
In an interview yesterday afternnon, Mr. Bernardin said he wrote the memo in 10 minutes. "It was just a reaction to something mean spirited and incorrect," he said. "There are times people tell me they wish we'd react more."
Hallmark stands by agency
Mr. Bernardin's feisty defense of Mr. Stoddart isn't the only vote of confidence the Chicago office received this week. Hallmark, which some Burnett staffers have said is a source of concern for the agency, issued its own defense of Burnett Jan. 8, saying, despite speculation to the contrary, the agency is in no danger of losing its $150 million account.
"The Hallmark account is not in review and there is no danger of that happening," said a Hallmark spokeswoman. "We're very pleased with the work Leo Burnett is doing."
People close to and inside the agency have wondered how Burnett would retain Hallmark without recently departed former chief creative officer Cheryl Berman, who was key figure in the account, at a time when Hallmark is reportedly struggling to adapt its store-driven business model to an increasingly digital world.
"We were obviously thrilled with Cheryl, but we're not considering a review," the spokeswoman said. "Not at all."