Before He Became a Film Legend, John Hughes Was an Adman

Former Colleague Looks Back at Hughes' Time at Leo Burnett

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Robert Birkenes
Robert Birkenes
John Hughes will always be remembered for his brand of special humor and ability to make people laugh. His movies are memorable and legendary. Without a doubt he will long be remembered for his unique style of movie entertainment.

But what many people don't know is that John's early career and formative creative years took place in Chicago during the 1970s as a copywriter for Leo Burnett Advertising -- one of the more creative and inspiring advertising agencies during that time.

We both worked in Hal Weinstein's group. John was assigned to work on the Kentucky Fried Chicken Account as a copywriter while I worked on the KFC business as an art director.

John was always coming up with some wild, offbeat ways to creatively promote the Colonel's chicken. I believe that John was always self-motivated to reach further and deeper within himself to produce some of the better creative TV commercials during that time.

John Hughes
John Hughes Credit: AP
Being at Leo Burnett had to be very inspirational for him as well as educational. Leo had a philosophical quote which most of us at Burnett really embraced: "Reach for the stars, and you won't come up with a handful of mud." I truly believe that John embraced this Burnett philosophy and it seemed to stay with him throughout his career.

Working late hours at Burnett was not unusual for most of us in the creative department. As a result, I often would find myself taking a late Northwestern train home at night, sometimes with John. He would get off at the Highland Park stop and I would continue on to Lake Bluff.

We would actually entertain ourselves by trying to see who could be funnier as we headed home on the train. John had a great sense of humor, a very quick wit and was a lot of fun to talk with.

I guess John really liked living in Highland Park. This is probably the reason he enjoyed shooting many of his movies there whenever he could.

In 1980, I moved from Chicago to seek the sunshine and excitement of my own ad agency in Boca Raton, Florida. Very soon thereafter, I saw his first movie, "National Lampoon's Vacation," the first of so many classic John Hughes movies. He has most definitely left a tremendous void in the movie- making industry with his passing.

John, if you do see the Colonel, please say hello to him for me.

Robert Birkenes is senior VP-Account Service at Pinpoint Communications, Deerfield Beach, Fla.
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