John Condon On The Spot

Leo Burnett’s new U.S. chief creative officer John Condon admits he was totally unprepared for an advertising career. A liberal studies graduate from Notre Dame, he only had a couple years of bartending experience—and no book to speak of—under his belt before trying to land a job at Burnett. Nevertheless, Condon was hired as a copywriter in 1986 and has spent his entire career at the agency. After a year-long search, the 44-year-old takes control of the Chicago shop’s creative department, as it says goodbye to the showcase U.S. Army account and welcomes Washington Mutual and Samsung.

Q: When searching for a U.S. CCO, Burnett was said to be looking for someone who would turn heads without scaring current clients. Some Burnett execs compared it to a search for Jesus Christ. Are you him?

A: Similar initials. And then it stops there.

Nevertheless, it’s a tough position to fill. Burnett is a large agency with a certain tradition and culture, but it wants to improve its creative image. What do you bring to the job as an insider that an outsider couldn’t?

Probably a good working knowledge of the ins and outs of this place. Our culture. Our clients. What it takes to succeed in this type of environment. The things that make the agency a success.

What are the agency’s strengths and weaknesses?

We have a client roster that everyone would kill for. We have an incredible culture. We have great talent. Weaknesses? Probably simply the perception of being seen as too traditional.

How do you plan to change that?

By being a little less traditional than people might expect. I think we have a lot of great creativity, great people, big brands, modern thinking. What we need are a few more examples where they all come together.

The U.S. Army was one of the places you could point to and say, “You may think we’re traditional, but look at what we’ve done.”

It was a totally modern, fresh and different approach to military recruitment. And for four out of five years, it exceeded expectations. We have to craft ourselves a new story. We’ve proven we can do that, because we’ve done it, but we need to do it again, and we need to do it more often.

You’ve been here your entire career. The search took the better part of 2005. What took so long? Do you have any bitterness about having to wait the entire year?

No. I’m honored to have the job. I get a dream job; I’m not going to be bitter about having gotten it. The fact is, the longer they took to decide, the more people they talked to in getting to who they thought was the right person, if anything, makes me more honored they thought it was me.

What inspired you to get into advertising?

I’d always been interested in it. When you see a great ad, it’s almost as satisfying as seeing a film, but it happens within 30 seconds, like a turn of a page. And I thought, “Wow, I’d like to try that.”

Who has influenced you most creatively?

From a distance, the work of people like John Hegarty and Jeff Goodby. People I’ve been able to work closely with—Mark Tutssel, who I’ve worked with for the past few years. He’s been a great influence.

What’s the smartest business decision you’ve ever made?

Getting out of the bed the morning that Flinn Dallis called. If you’re a bartender and someone rings you at 9:15 on a Friday, it could be a hard decision.

What’s your biggest fear in life?

Letting down people that count on me.

You have a lot of people depending on you. That means more opportunities to let said people down. How do you confront that?

There’s a difference between things not going the way you might have wanted and a feeling that they have been let down. If people know that I’m always there to support a good idea, to fight the good fight, to champion creative thinking, then while we may not always win every battle, they can feel they’ve been supported to the best of my abilities.

How do you get past a creative block?

I go for a walk. And if that doesn’t work, I can flush it out with scotch.

What’s your dream assignment?

I think I just got it, actually. If I couldn’t do this, I’d be the closing pitcher for the Cubs.

If this is your dream assignment, what would your reaction have been if they’d gone with someone else for the job?

I think honestly, I would have had to see how that person would have been and how I might have worked with them.

What’s your biggest pet peeve?

It’s a toss-up. Arrogance or stupidity. I guess the biggest pet peeve would be the dreaded combination of both.

Your duties are the work and the people. But another job is to be the creative face for the agency. Is that a role you see yourself filling?

It comes with the territory. I’m ready to take it on as part of the gig. There’s no other way to really do it, is there? I imagine it’s something you grow into over time.

What did you expect to do with your degree?

That’s what my parents kept asking. What I expected was to figure that out later, actually. I wanted to read and deduct and write about ideas. And that’s what we did. I think there’s an odd link to advertising. It’s all about ideas.