Leo Burnett (1891 – 1971) was an American advertising executive and the founder of Leo Burnett Company, Inc. He was responsible for creating some of advertising’s most well-known characters and campaigns of the 20th century, including ‘Tony the Tiger,’ ‘Charlie the Tuna,’ the ‘Marlboro Man,’ the ‘Maytag Repairman,’ United’s ‘Fly the Friendly Skies,’ Allstate’s ‘Good Hands,’ and for garnering relationships with multinational clients such as McDonald’s, Hallmark, and Coca-Cola.
His first job out of college was as a reporter for the ‘Peoria Journal Star’ in Peoria, Illinois. In 1917, Leo moved to Detroit and was hired to edit an in-house publication for ‘Cadillac Clearing House,’ later becoming an advertising director for the same institution. At Cadillac, Leo met his advertising mentor, Theodore F. MacManus, whom Leo called ‘one of the great advertising men of all time.’
During World War I, Leo joined the Navy for six months. However, his service was mostly spent at Great Lakes building a breakwater. After his time in the military, Leo returned to Cadillac for a short while. It was then when a few employees at Cadillac formed the LaFayette Motors Company – triggering Leo to move to Indianapolis to work for the new establishment. Soon after, he then left LaFayette and joined Homer McKee, where Leo Burnett said of the founder, ‘(He) gave me my first feel of what I have come to regard as the ‘warm sell’ as contrasted to the ‘hard sell’ and ‘soft sell.’ This was his first agency job.
After spending a decade at McKee’s, and working through the stock market crash of 1929, Leo left the company. In 1930, he moved to Chicago and was hired by Erwin, Wasey & Company, where he was employed for five years. In 1935, he founded the Leo Burnett Company, Inc. in a suite at the Palmer House in downtown Chicago. Soon after, the operation moved to the 18th floor of the London Guarantee Building. Now a part of Publicis Groupe, the agency has over 9,000 employees in over 85 offices globally. For the first several years, Burnett only billed about $1 million annually. By 1950, billings had increases to $22 million, and by 1954 the company was at $55 million annually. By the end of the 1950s, the Leo Burnett Company was billing $100 million annually.
The Leo Burnett Company known for using big black pencils, with the idea that ‘big ideas come from big pencils.’ Apples also become a symbol for the company after Burnett put out a bowl of apples at a reception when he opened his doors in the middle of the Great Depression, which caused a lot of talk, with people saying that it would not be long before Burnett would be selling apples on the street. Apples continued to be a symbol of Leo Burnett’s hospitality and success throughout the years. Stars have become another symbol of Leo Burnett through Leo Burnett’s purported philosophy, ‘when you reach for the stars you may not quite get one, but you won’t come up with a handful of mud either.’ They continue to represent this striving for greatness.
The company’s first major client was Green Giant in 1935. In the 1940s it ran large campaigns for Pillsbury and later Kellogg’s. Procter & Gamble, Philip Morris, Maytag, Allstate, and Starkist were the company’s notable clients in the ’50s. In the ’60s they worked with United Airlines, GM, and Keebler. Current clients include Fiat, Samsung, McDonald’s, and Pfizer.
Leo Burnett used dramatic realism in his advertising, the Soft sell approach to build brand equity. Burnett believed in finding the inherent drama of products and presenting it in advertising through warmth, shared emotions, and experiences. His advertising drew from heartland-rooted values using simple, strong and instinctive imagery that talked to people. He was also known for using cultural archetypes in his copy, by creating mythical creatures that represented American values. This is evident on such campaigns as Jolly Green Giant, Tony the Tiger, the Pillsbury Doughboy, and more famously the Marlboro Man.
Burnett was known for keeping a folder in the lower left-hand corner of his desk called ‘Corny Language.’ He collected words, phrases, and analogies that struck him as being particularly apt in expressing an idea. This was not meant by maxims, gags, or slang, but words, phrases and analogies which convey a feeling of honesty and that drive home a clear point.
In December 1967, nearing the end of his career, Leo Burnett delivered his famous ‘When To Take My Name Off The Door’ speech at the agency’s annual holiday gathering, instruction the company to only remove his name if lose their passion for advertising. On June 7, 1971, Burnett went to his agency, pledging to his colleagues to cut back to working only three days per week due to some health problems. That evening, at the age of 79, he died of a heart attack at his family farm in Lake Zurich, Illinois.