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CNBC's 'Titans' Pays Homage to Leo Burnett

Business series profiles adman and agency

One of the iconic creations of the agency, "Poppin' Fresh" | Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

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Cable business channel CNBC honored Leo Burnett Thursday evening, dedicating an hour-long episode of its Titans series to a portrait of the 20th century adman and the agency he founded. 

The homage, drawing on interviews with biographers, journalists, and current and former Leo Burnett executives, traced the arc of his career—from working a yearlong stint out of college as a reporter in Peoria, Ill., to starting an advertising firm that would rise to become one of the world’s most prominent networks. Much of the episode's focus fell on the growth of the agency—including key early wins, such as a $2 million account from the American Meat Institute after a pitch involving 28 agencies—and Leo Burnett's notable successes in driving clients' sales during the '40s, '50s, and '60s.

But the true stars of the show? The iconic characters the agency created, including familiar faces like Poppin’ Fresh, aka the Pillsbury Dough Boy (who used to have a female companion); Frosted Flake’s Tony the Tiger; and StarKist’s Charlie the Tuna—all of which earned Leo Burnett the moniker “The Critter Agency.”

Also noted as part of the legacy, the less cuddly Marlboro Man, who transformed the cigarette from lady smokes peddled using the tagline “Mild as May” into the top-selling cowboy killers they’re known as today. While it’s in dispute whether the Marlboro Man was the brainchild of Burnett himself, or of copywriter Draper Daniels—part of the inspiration for the character Don Draper in AMC's Mad Men—it's a dubious honor. “One thing you have to say in candor is, the Marlboro cowboy helped kill hundreds of thousands of people,” advertising historian Stephen Fox told CNBC. “This is not a harmless product, and it’s not particularly to Leo’s credit that he helped promote it.”

CNBC covered the agency’s struggle to adjust to the digital age, its surprise 2002 sale to holding company Publicis, and its $15.5 million dollar settlement in 2009 with the U.S. government over inflated billings for its work on ads for the army. 

The episode airs a second time Sunday, August 28, at 10 p.m. ET. Smoke 'em if you got 'em.