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WHILE SO MANY HARD-BITTEN creatives are striving to find smart, trendy new twists to their ads, Cheryl Berman is busy soaking hers in emotion, and, like it or not, letting them drip-dry over our increasingly cynical hearts.

Berman, 42, a Leo Burnett executive VP-group CD, is responsible for putting more lumps in our throats, (not to mention burgers in our bellies and greeting cards in our mailboxes) than, well, your mom. And she might be more manipulative, too. Berman's top accounts are McDonald's and Hallmark, and she helps these clients spend $300 million and $50 million, respectively, to be our friends. After all, people like to do business with their buddies, and food tastes better when you buy it from a pal, research shows. So the best way to connect with the public emotionally, Berman says, is to give people real-life stories told in a heartwarming, believable way. And corny as they can seem, learning-impaired teens ("Mike," the McDonald's commercial where a guy with Down's Syndrome gets a McJob), bad hairdos and centenarian birthdays are fair game.

But what often separates maudlin ads from honest ones is a hair's breadth of distinction, and Berman's seen her share snap in the search for heartrending truths. Still, she's not afraid to pluck the weaker strands in order to make sure her packages land on the right side of the schmaltz line.

The Burnett rumor mill has it that Berman is one of the toughest group CDs to work for at the agency, a warning of sorts for those charged with turning out these warm, fuzzy ads that they might expect to be fairly miserable while in the process. Says Jim Ferguson, a former creative director who was in Berman's group, "She's the meanest man I ever worked for." That, of course, comes from a guy who was tapped by Stephen Spielberg to turn one of his McDonald's scripts into a movie.

The spot, "The Perfect Season," shows devoted men coaching peewee football, brave fathers serving as human goalposts and doting dads videotaping their sons' bungled plays. Soon after it aired, Ferguson and his partner, former Burnett CD Bob Shallcross, were writing the screenplay for "Little Giants," which Spielberg produced. "We worked under Cheryl about five years," Shallcross says. "She's one of the hardest-working people I know." Ferguson concurs. "She was back at work two days after she had a baby," he says, "and there were stories of her writing during labor. My favorite joke is, 'Cheryl, why are you late?' and her saying, 'I had a baby this morning.'"

Apocryphal as these stories may be, they're not out of character. Berman is the most powerful female creative at Burnett and was made a board member last January, the first woman so elected. More important for this juggler, she says her three children have only contributed to her success. "If advertising is your life, it doesn't work," she says. "Every time I had a kid, my career got better."

Creatives who are parents invent the best emotional ads, she contends, admitting she sometimes tells her writers, "I should be paying your kids instead of you"-which is what the guys who created McDonald's "Me Day" and "Smile" heard.

Pretty much everyone with a kid has lived through "Smile," in which a dorky department store photographer goes through tortured machinations trying to get a baby to grin. But odds are not many parents have gone to school as their child's show and tell project, and been held up as their child's best friend-like the dad in "Me Day."

Says the blustery but nonetheless sentimental Joe Pytka, who directed the spot, "I love emotional advertising, and some of my best work has been for Cheryl." But this spot's cloying closing "He's my best friend" line stuck in the director's throat, and he shot a second ending for it. "In my ending, the kid asks his father to tell a story and the father chokes," Pytka says. "Cheryl tested both versions and men liked my ending, women liked the original. And since the target audience was women, she used the original.

"Occasionally, there is a line, like the one in 'Me Day,' that feels awkward to me," Pytka adds. "But in the seven or eight years I've been working with her, the scripts have been brilliant."

And Berman's scripts are basically what won the agency Disney's theme park business. (The account was awarded without a review.) Her group got the nod because it was their work for McD's and Hallmark that got Burnett considered the first place.

The style of work Berman plans to bring to this account, like that seen in most McDonald's ads, will be of the soft and cuddly variety. (In a too cute spot currently airing, two young brothers are seen packing for their trip, the older one giving the younger one sage advice.) "I don't think it works to yell at someone," she says, referring specifically to competitors like Six Flags and, in the fast food category, Taco Bell. "We looked at Six Flags' advertising and it's get off, get on, get off, get on. And I don't like Taco Bell. It yells, it screams, it's loud and you don't get anything out of it at the end of the day." What she does admire is work for Pepsi, Nike and Visa. "They make you think about your own life," she says.

This is a crucial point in explaining her own work, although Berman says there is no formula for coming up with an emotional ploy, aside from nailing down a timeless situation and building to a magic moment-then letting the group's die-hard cynics give it the tear or gag test. But this makes it all sound too easy. "Not everyone can write heartwarming, funny dialogue," Berman says. "It takes a special talent. And I'm constantly sending people back to make dialogue more believable."

Berman's belief in believability may have something to do with her roots in journalism, which she studied while attending the University of Illinois. A Chicago native, she worked briefly for a small newspaper run by her uncle after graduating, but gave up reporting after he told her that if she wanted to make things up she should go into advertising. Her entire agency career has been spent at Burnett, which she joined after leaving the paper. She briefly considered a move to New York last year when offered the creative director's job at Wells Rich Greene, but opted to stay in Chicago for a variety of reasons both personal and professional, citing a reluctance to uproot her family and to abandon her group, which she regularly convenes for collective reel screening and nitpicking.

A key part of her formula for delivering the emotional goods is in the casting of her commercials. While these situations can often get syrupy, the right hint of attitude or humor on the part of the actors can add a hint of an edge to the dialogue. For example, Hallmark's "100th Birthday" would have gone sappy had it not been for the catty old woman at the end who says of the centenarian birthday girl, "She's really 101."

The current McDonald's campaign, with those duelling Super Bowl fans jockeying to be first in line for tickets, is another example. Directed by Pytka, these spots feature two dopey wiseasses who seem to have walked right out of a skit for "Saturday Night Live." Taking dead aim at the kind of nuts who take off their shirts at subfreezing games, the performances are goofy without being cartoonish.

"It's a total collaborative effort," says Pytka of working with Berman's group. What's even more rare, he's noticed, is how loyal her creatives are, especially now that Berman isn't on sets much anymore. "She's tough," he adds, "but I think she's tough in a way that turns people on. Look at Ferguson and Shallcross.

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