Brinegar Says It’s About Change New Burnett U.S. CEO Offers His Vision for the Chicago Shop

Brad Brinegar began his career at Leo Burnett in 1979 and moved up through the agency’s client service ranks to become a senior vice president and account director.

He left the agency nearly 20 years later to become president and chief executive officer of Ammirati Puris Lintas’ (later Lowe, Lintas & Partners) fledgling Chicago office. Set up to handle Ameritech’s $85 million account, the office never won much beyond that and closed in June after its major business was swallowed by SBC Communications, which consolidated the ad account at its roster shops.

Brinegar, 45, returned to Burnett in July as chief operating officer. On Sept. 29, he was named CEO of Burnett’s U.S. operations after former CEO Linda Wolf was tapped to lead the global organization. In an interview last week, Brinegar offered up his vision for the agency. What follows is an edited transcript of that interview.

Adweek: What are the differences between Burnett now and Burnett three years ago when you left to join APL?

Brinegar: What made me very interested in coming back, first of all, was a clear alignment of management. Now it’s very clear who’s running the company and what direction it’s going. Everything about Burnett, in terms of becoming a more fleet-footed, aggressive and more resource-laden competitor than it was when I left, are all reasons that I think it’s changed dramatically. Frankly, the fact that they hired me back and I now have this role is an indication of a real orientation of looking outside, thinking about what the right things to do are and making bold steps.

Adweek: What were some of the things you learned from your time at APL?

Brinegar: The thing that was most helpful was to work with a client like Ameritech [that] is in an industry that changes dynamics every two weeks … I think there is a tradition in our industry to try and perfect things and then execute them. In that context, we learned the only way we could win was to adopt what I call a “Do, learn, do” behavior. You might not get it perfect the first time out, so you learned how to improve the quality of work through action.

Adweek: What do you take from that experience back to Burnett?

Brinegar: I’m going to be looking for ways to organize and resource and rethink how we approach the business so we get into a “Do, learn, do” way of doing everything.

Adweek: What are Burnett’s strength and weaknesses?

Brinegar: I would start by saying that our strengths start with a talent and an ethos about quality. I have every intention of building a great agency, and to me that means having it all. It means having incredibly sharp strategic thinking and incredibly brilliant creative execution. And it means having media contact plans that make sure we’re reaching people in the right places. There are ways to help the company look outside and become quicker than in some cases it’s had to be.

Adweek: How do you consider yourself to be an “agent of positive change”?

Brinegar: Having been on the outside, I know what’s great about Burnett and I think I know some things we can be doing better. I want to develop what is essentially a truly creative enterprise and do that in a way that uses all the tools possible. I really want it all, and I think we have the pieces to make that happen.

Adweek: What do you need to do that?

Brinegar: It’s going to require developing resources that we don’t have right now. It will involve, on some level, acquisitions. It’s going to involve some rethinking about how we organize and structure people. Its about creative’s role in driving superior results and how we get there. It’s going to take developing and working with the rest of the U.S. management team. My first business will be to get together with them and clarify a lot of things we’re talking about and make sure we’re all aligned on where we need to go.

Adweek: What does your appointment say about creative’s place at the agency?

Brinegar: I have a huge belief that you can get results for a client with a great strategy, but you can’t get brilliant results without brilliant creative execution of that strategy. There is nothing in this appointment that will do anything other than heighten the importance of creativity. Frankly, we have incredible creative talent in place. I’m looking forward to partnering with Cheryl [Berman, U.S. chairman and chief creative officer] to figure out how we can help her group turn out greater creative product.

Adweek: What does your appointment and that of (former Starcom COO) Bob Brennan to Burnett Worldwide president say about Burnett?

Brinegar: The signal they should send is, we’re going to try and find the best people to do the jobs that need to be done no matter where they come from. And, as always, it’s wonderful if we find those talents inside the agency. But it’s also wonderful if we recognize that we don’t have those talents inside the agency and we bring them in.

Adweek: You’ve mentioned a few times about looking outside the agency. Was there a perception that Burnett was too insular in the past?

Brinegar: Let me answer that in the most constructive way possible. This is a company that was incredibly competitive until they hit a bump a few years ago. If there was a weakness, we tended to look more inside than outside. That’s how we got into trouble in the early to mid-90s, and I think it’s fundamental to the strength of what’s going on now that there’s a clear outward focus.