Childhood & Early Life
Leo Burnett was born on October 21, 1891 in St. Johns, Michigan, U.S.A. His father, Noble Burnett ran a dry goods store. His mother was Rose Clark Burnett.
In his childhood, Burnett often worked at his father’s store. At that time, he often watched his father as he designed posters and banners to promote his business. Thus he had his first lessons of advertisements from his father. Soon he started designing posters for the school football team.
As an adolescent, he had little self-confidence and genuinely believed that he was not as smart as many other boys. Fortunately, he also believed that if he worked really hard may be he would ‘average out.’
Apart from designing posters, he also developed an interest in journalism. While studying in high school, he spent his summers working as a reporter for several weekly newspapers of that locality.
After graduating from school, he started teaching at the single-roomed village school at St. Johns. Later, he left his job to study journalism at the University of Michigan.
During his college years, he supported himself by working as a night editor at ‘Michigan Daily’ and during the day time he created display cards for a department store. In 1914, he earned his bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Michigan.
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Leo Burnett started his career as a police reporter for the ‘Peoria Journal Star’ in Peoria, Illinois. However, he dreamed big and aspired to become the publisher of famous newspapers like ‘The New York Times.’ He also realized that he could make a lot of money if he went into advertisement.
Yet, he kept on working for ‘Peoria Journal Star’, covering dirty politics and murders without a byline for $18 a week. Then in 1915, he had his own biweekly column. Titled, ‘Right of Way, a Column About Railroads and Those Who Run Them’, it ran for three months.
However, the young man was not at all satisfied because he knew that it was the automobile, not railroad, which was America’s future. At this juncture, his English professor, Dr. Fred Newton Scott, brought to his notice that Cadillac Motor Company was recruiting staff.
He therefore left his job and set out for Detroit. In 1916, after a round of interviews and written test, in which he had to write an essay on ‘the importance of cleanliness’, he was appointed an editor of ‘Cadillac Clearing House’, an in-house publication for Cadillac dealers.
As a part of his duty, he was required to cover publicity works for the company at auto shows held in cities like New York and Chicago. His work in this field earned him great acclaim and he was made the director of advertising within a couple of years.
During this period, he was mentored by Theodore F. MacManus, who at that time was a leading figure in advertising and also known for his ethics. From him Burnett learned the basics of advertising.
However, while working at the Cadillac, Burnett was called for his military duty. He joined the United States Navy and spent the six month of his service building breakwaters at the Great Lakes.
On his release, he rejoined Cadillac. Thereafter, when in 1919, some employees of Cadillac left the company to establish LaFayette Motors Company at Indianapolis, Burnett followed them and became the advertizing executive of the newly founded company. He also bought $2000 worth of its stocks.
In 1922, when LaFayette's facilities were moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Burnett decided to stay back at Indianapolis. He already had an offer from Homer McKee Advertising Agency; now he joined the company as its creative head. This was his first job at an advertising agency.
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Burnett had high regard for the founder of the company and learned from him many techniques, which he later termed as ‘warm sell.’ It was something different from existing ‘hard sell’ and ‘soft sell.’
In 1929, with the crash of the stock market, the great depression set in. Like many other advertising agencies, Homer McKee too was hit badly, losing many of its major automobile accounts.
Leo Burnett now had a growing family to look after. In 1930, he left Homer and set out for Chicago, where he secured employment at Erwin, Wasey & Company, a leading advertisement company of that time.
Shortly after he joined the company, it moved its headquarters to New York. In 1931, Burnett was named the Vice President of its Chicago unit, in charge of its creative work.
The company took up hard sell approach, which many of its clients did not like. Moreover, there was a perception that the company was giving more importance to East Coast clients, which made the other clients all the more disgruntled.
Several of these clients now approached Burnett to open his own agency. Initially, his sense of loyalty did not allow him to do that. But later when his colleagues J. Walter Thompson and Arthur Kudner formed their own company, taking away several of Erwin’s accounts, Burnett relented.
Leo Burnett Company, Inc.
Leo Burnett then set out to gather the capital. He sold his home, hocked his insurance policies and borrowed heavily from banks. Finally with $50,000 as working capital, he opened the door of his new company, Leo Burnett Company, Inc, in a suite at the Palmer House, Chicago, on August 5, 1935.
It was a risky venture, especially because Chicago was far away from the center of the advertising industry. Yet, several of the creative people from Erwin, Wasey & Company also moved in with Burnett; so did Minnesota Valley Canning Company (now Green Giant Co.), which was earlier with Erwin.
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During the first few years, the company billed only about $1,000,000 annually. Apart from the canning company, two other accounts that he was able to retain were The Hoover Company and Realsilk Hosiery Mills.
However, as his advertisements reflected the Mid Western hominess rather than New Yorker sophistication and stressed ‘on the inherent drama of the product’, it won many hearts. Very soon clients such as Pillsbury and Campbell Soup started coming in. By 1948, the annual billing exceeded $10 million.
Next in 1949, he was retained by Kellogg’s and by the following year the billing increased to $22 million per annum. However, it was in 1952, when Procter and Gamble chose him for his institutional campaign that Burnett knew that he had made it.
The company began to expand quickly and by 1954 it was billing $55 million annually. In the following year, it was retained by Philip Morris to develop a campaign for Marlboro cigarettes and by the end of the decade it was billing $100 million annually.
All along, Leo Burnett remained totally involved with his company. Although the number of clients began to grow, he made sure every advertisement was passed through the planning board of which he was the head. Concurrently, he made sure that the atmosphere at the agency remained cordial.
According to experts, the ‘Marlboro Man’ Burnett created for Philip Morris, was his most important work. At that time, filtered cigarettes were not considered masculine enough and so the company was finding it difficult to sell the product. Their market share was only 1%.
To attract consumers, Burnett created the character of a cowboy, which not only exuded masculinity, but was also typically American. The sales increased dramatically and soon it became the number one cigarette brand in the US.
His other notable creations were ‘Jolly Green Giant’ he created for Minnesota Valley Canning Company; ‘Tony the Tiger’ and ‘Toucan Sam’ for Kellogg’s; ‘Hubert the Lion’ for Harris Bank; ‘Charlie the Tuna’ for Star-Kist; ‘Pillsbury Doughboy’ for Pillsbury; ‘Keebler Elves’ for Keebler; ‘Morris the Cat’ for 9Lives cat food and ‘Maytag Repairman’ for Maytag.
Personal Life & Legacy
In 1918, while working for Cadillac, Leo Burnett married Naomi Geddes. She was as a cashier in a small restaurant near his office and they met at this very restaurant. They had three children: Peter, Joseph and Phoebe.
From the mid-1960s, Burnett began to suffer from various ailments and began to give up most of his responsibilities. He ultimately retired in 1967; but continued to attend office at least twice a week.
On June 7, 1971, he attended office and pledged to his staff that he would cut back on his work. He had a heart attack the very evening and died at his family farm in Lake Zurich, Illinois. He was then 79 years old.
More than a successful advertising agency, Leo Burnett had left a personal legacy that encompasses both his business and creative aspects. He used to say, "Reach for the stars; you may not get one, but you won't come up with a handful of mud either”. It remains the company’s motto.