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The advertising agency is a business with a great heritage. Brilliant, dominant men have started most of the great agencies of this century: William Bernbach, Fairfax Cone, Raymond Rubicam, David Ogilvy, Leo Burnett.

Agency executives down through the years pass on and keep alive the legacy their found-ers have bestowed on their institutions, believing their credos are what separate them from the rest of the pack.

Agencies put out booklets reprinting the words of their original principals, lest they forget what made the agencies great. In 1994, DDB Needham celebrated the 45th anniversary of the founding of Doyle Dane Bernbach. As part of the commemoration, the agency reprinted Bill Bernbach's "timeless words of advice and inspiration. We do this to commemorate the imagination and wisdom of a great man and with the profound belief that his ideas-which made advertising history-hold the power to shape our future."

We all-desperately-want to fathom what the future holds for us by sifting the sands of the past. And if we have a great man whose words seem to have a relevance for the future, it's easy to worship his every word.

For instance, Bill Bernbach once said (according to the DDB Needham booklet): "Today, everybody is talking `creativity,' and frankly, that's got me worried. I fear lest we keep the good taste and lose the sell. I fear all the sins we may commit in the name of `creativity.' I fear we may be entering an age of phonies."

He was right to be worried. The ad business, right now, is full of phonies who are trying to foist on us the idea that ads don't have to be related to the products they're purportedly selling.

"The magic is in the product," Mr. Bernbach said, but too many people today believe the magic is in the magic.

The trouble is that the founding fathers knew what they were trying to say, but their wise words can be interpreted as either a bold plan for the future-or to resist dramatic change and remain faithful to the founder's enduring words. Not many men with their names on the door meant for their utterances to be used as guideposts for generations to come, but their words were gathered up and used in this way. Raymond Rubicam was one of the few to say he was leaving no tablets because every generation must reinvent the company. His legacy was that he walked out the door.

And that brings us to Leo Burnett Co. As one agency head told me: Burnett has never gone through the process of reinventing itself. They've run the agency in a zealous, orthodox way, and they are proud of it.

"They have been driving forward looking in the rear-view mirror asking what Leo would have done," the exec said. "And in the meantime, the game has changed."

According to this agency biggie, Burnett has "missed out" on some of the major upheavals rocking the business-new accountability, other businesses, the entire reinvention process.

Ogilvy & Mather was another agency stuck in that impasse, but Charlotte Beers got the agency to go beyond trying to get back to David Ogilvy. "The ghosts of David hung around for too long," the agency man said.

So what now for Burnett? For all its travails, the agency will make the changes it needs to make.

"Burnett is an outstanding institution with caring, passionate people," he said. "Burnett is simply a winner."

But the question is whether the agency "has the right guys to fix what's wrong"-right now.

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