Sharper Image: Burnett Focuses on its future, replacing A business-as-usual approach with a new, more aggressive attitude
In January 1999, a six-member team led by account director Larry Bruck went to Leo Burnett president Linda Wolf’s office and presented a business plan to aggressively pursue accounts in the burgeoning dot.com market. Burnett, long considered a lumbering gorilla more likely to embrace old traditions than new technology, seemed immune to the fast-moving world of Web startups.
But as Bruck learned, Burnett is showing a new willingness to change. “She immediately said, ‘Let’s go for it,’ ” Bruck recalls. “It was lightning speed compared with my past adventures at Burnett.” Her quick directive helped Burnett land an estimated $60 million in new media billings during 1999: Art.com, Living.com, Varsitybooks.com and Mondera.com, in addition to the $10-15 million Toysrus.com business that followed the shop’s win of the company’s main account.
The wins were part of a solid new business year in which Burnett’s U.S. office racked up $370 million in new billings. The biggest gain was the $100 million Delta Air Lines account which Burnett won over TBWA Worldwide, Grey Advertising and Saatchi & Saatchi. Those gains–along with an improved creative product and innovative organizational changes that culminated in a plan to merge with The MacManus Group and go public–make Burnett Adweek’s 1999 Midwest Agency of the Year.
As agency executives admit, 1999 probably wouldn’t seem so impressive had several previous years not been so dismal. Stuck with a management and creative model that failed to keep up with sweeping changes in the ad business, Burnett was in danger of becoming marginalized.
“We were slow. We were riddled with bureaucracy and rules,” says Leo Group chairman Rick Fizdale. “The new economy doesn’t move as slowly as Burnett did back in 1997.”
But an agency notoriously resistant to change underwent a series of new initiatives, from the formation of the now-disbanded mini-agencies setup to regular “town meetings,” in which the shop’s top brass address questions from staffers. “People have been empowered,” says Bruck. “If you have a good idea, you can act on it, and you can act on it very quickly.”
Results include significantly improved creative work. Though the agency’s reel still has its moments of Spielbergian bombast, edgier work for Heinz and the mockumentary campaign for Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes are eye-catching and relevant.
In an effort to move away from the formulaic ads that once defined Burnett, chief creative officer Cheryl Berman has given group creative directors more independence and direct responsibility for their work, which was once vetted and picked apart by layers of management. She has brought all-stars from the agency’s global network, like Jeff Finkler and Jonathan Hoffman, to the Chicago headquarters to help foster change.
In readying new pitches, Burnett no longer relies on the sheer size of its creative teams and ideas. It entered the Delta pitch, for example, with one team and one idea. “It’s hard for people to work when their hands are tied and they don’t have the freedom to do what they think is right,” Berman says, putting her finger on a problem that plagued Burnett for years. “We can’t shackle great talent because they’ll go somewhere else.”
Outside perceptions of Burnett, however, may not have kept pace with internal reality. Although located just outside Chicago, Art.com didn’t even consider Burnett for its $20 million business, assuming it could not compete in the speedy dot.com world, says Michael Kahn, the company’s chief marketing officer.
It guessed wrong. Using its brand-building history and offering a top creative team, Burnett skillfully talked its way in late. In two weeks, Steffan Postaer and Mark Faulkner, 1997 Kelly award winners for Altoids, turned in a winning strategy that focused on clever headlines and colors.
“They responded to the assignment, and they nailed the creative,” Kahn says. “There wasn’t one moment along the way that we hit ‘process.’ ” Art.com’s president, William Lederer, says Burnett proved “as quick, agile and creative as a boutique.”
Organizationally, 1999 was the year Burnett altered its financial structure. Its independent status, as well as its size, had rendered it unable to compete with mega-sized holding companies.
In September, it formed The Leo Group holding company, followed by a rapid-fire series of negotiations that led to the MacManus/Dentsu merger and plans for a publicly held holding company comprised of Burnett and The MacManus Group, with Dentsu holding a 20 percent stake.
Staunchly independent for almost 65 years, the agency realized such a move was necessary if it was to compete in the 21st century. “We had to take charge of our future,” says Leo Group and BDM chief executive Roger Haupt.
Next year will bring more sweeping change. The agency will likely hire an outsider familiar with the publicly financed world to impress the investment community. There’s a distinct possibility of layoffs as the agency sees “synergies” in areas such as human resources. And there will be a spotlight on the agency’s bottom line.
“I think this company has become far less fearful of change, and I think it reflects in all the things we were willing to do,” Haupt says. “Experimentation means you will make mistakes at times. That’s fine … [It means] you’re thinking about the world that you’re operating in, as opposed to being somewhat paralyzed.
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