Burnett, Leo (1891-1971)

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Leo Noble Burnett was born Oct. 21, 1891, in St. Johns, Mich., the first of four children born to Rose Clark and Noble Burnett. Following his graduation from the University of Michigan in 1914, he worked briefly as a reporter for the Peoria (Ill.) Journal before joining Cadillac Motor Car Co., where he edited a company magazine.

After marrying in 1918 and serving in World War I, Mr. Burnett joined five others to found LaFayette Motors in Indianapolis. The venture failed, and Mr. Burnett took his first agency job with the Homer McKee agency, Indianapolis, where he remained until 1930.

That year Arthur Kudner, copy director at Erwin, Wasey & Co., offered Mr. Burnett a position on the account of Minnesota Valley Canning Co., marketer of Niblets and Green Giant canned vegetables. Mr. Burnett accepted the Chicago-based job, where he also worked on the agency's Hoover Co. vacuum cleaner business and Realsilk Hosiery. In summer 1935, Mr. Kudner left to form his own agency, a move that gave Mr. Burnett the final push he needed to do the same. He resigned on Aug. 1, 1935, and on Aug. 5 founded Leo Burnett Co. in Chicago with three charter accounts: Minnesota Canning, Hoover and Realsilk. The new agency's motto: "Reach for the stars."

The agency's growth in the 1930s was steady but unspectacular. Mr. Burnett became an influential member of the War Advertising Council in 1942 and helped mount a major campaign to collect scrap metal for the war effort and another on behalf of the government's meat-rationing program.

After the war, the agency grew swiftly with the rise of TV. In 1946, it broke into the ranks of the top agencies, then defined as those billing $10 million a year or more. In 1947, Mr. Burnett, at 55, suffered a serious heart attack. Though it was a signal to him to slow down and delegate more responsibility to others, he remained fully engaged in the agency's creative work during the defining decade of the 1950s.

Although a short, somewhat stout man with little physical charisma or pretense, Burnett became a central figure in the Chicago advertising scene as his agency grew competitive with the major New York shops. In 1953, the shop Leo Burnett Company moved onto the list of the top 10 American agencies with billings of $46.4 million. The following year it won Philip Morris Cos.' Marlboro account; Burnett took a personal role in repositioning the brand from a women's cigarette to a men's with the introduction of the "Marlboro Man" campaign.

The Burnett style became increasingly associated with such characters, created to personify brand images. These included Morris the cat for Nine Lives, Charlie the Tuna for Star-Kist and the Maytag repairman for Maytag.

Although agency operations had passed to younger people by the 1960s, Mr. Burnett remained on the scene both as chairman and as the central cultural icon of the company, choosing to intervene with the full force of his personality where he deemed necessary. In summer 1967, senior management asked Mr. Burnett to step down from the agency's creative review committee because his presence was inhibiting the evolution of the agency's creative work. Mr. Burnett reluctantly complied, assuming the title of founder-chairman.

That December at the annual employee breakfast, Mr. Burnett delivered an address that has become his most succinct personal credo. It was called "When to Take My Name Off the Door," and a film of the speech is still shown to every new Burnett employee.

On June 7, 1971, Mr. Burnett died of a heart attack at his home in suburban Lake Zurich, Ill., after putting in a full day at the office. None of his three children followed him into advertising, and his stock was returned to the privately held company.

In 1999, Advertising Age named Mr. Burnett the third most important advertising person of the century. Among the top 10 advertising icons created over the century, the publication selected four created by his agency: the Marlboro Man, the Jolly Green Giant, the Pillsbury Doughboy and Tony the Tiger. No other agency had more than one.


Born in St. Johns, Michigan, Oct. 21, 1891; graduated from the University of Michigan, 1914; became an editor for a company publication for the Cadillac Motor Car Co., 1915; served as seaman second class during World War I in Great Lakes, Ill.; co-founded LaFayette Motors, in Indianapolis, 1919; began advertising career at Homer McKee agency, 1920; joined Erwin, Wasey & Co., Chicago, 1930; founded Leo Burnett Co., 1935; named founder-chairman at Burnett, 1967; died at home in Lake Zurich, Ill., June 7, 1971.

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