Mark Tutssel admits there are some things he needs to learn about American culture. Take American football. A day after watching the Chicago Bears' improbable come-from-behind victory in their season opener, Tutssel says he was thrilled by the game but isn't sure he picked up on the nuances.
"To really appreciate the game, you have to understand it," says Tuts sel, 44, a soccer and basketball player as a kid in the U.K. and still a sports nut.
The same can be said of his job as deputy executive creative director at Leo Burnett. Described as not having "a political bone in his body" by one colleague, Tutssel is now the No. 2 creative at one of the most political agencies around. Moreover, he's been positioned as the $3 billion shop's creative savior.
One of the creatives behind the highly regarded John West "Bear" spot from Burnett's London office, where he was co-executive creative director, Tutssel moved to Chicago nearly a year ago to help reshape a department in a constant state of reorganization as the agency tries to maneuver into the top creative tier.
It's been tried before. Former Bur nett Toronto chief creative Jeff Fink ler lasted less than a year in a similar position, his confrontational style out of sync with the culture in Chicago. Tutssel is more of a diplomat—for starters, he's careful to note that he thinks the agency was producing great work built around solid thinking long before he got there, particularly for Heinz, Altoids and Disney. He sees his job as "fine-tuning" the thinking and raising the baseline of the craftsmanship. "That takes time, but the foundations have been laid," he says.
Key to the buzz that followed Tutssel's arrival was the series of high-profile creative hires he made in the months after he started. On the eve of winning the Cannes Grand Prix and a gold Lion, respectively, Wieden + Ken nedy copywriter Kash Sree and TBWA\Chiat\Day creative director Jeff Labbé left their West Coast shops to join Tutssel. He also recruited Goodby, Silverstein & Partners creative team Josh Denberg and Paul Hirsch, and former Fallon and TBWA veteran Stephanie Crippen, who recently teamed with Reed Col lins, a 2001 gold Lion winner for his Fox Sports work.
While many wondered how Tuts sel lured these creatives to Burnett (or how much he had to pay them), Tutssel says his pitch was simple: It's time to work on "grown-up" brands. "We have some of the finest brands in the world here," he says. "It's OK if you can do another great spot for ESPN or Fox Sports, but I'd like to do some really mold-breaking work on some blue-chip business."
"He said, 'We make 2,000 commercials a year,' " says Sree. "How many opportunities is that?"
Denberg likens the agency to another local icon, the Chicago Cubs. "Don't you want to come and play in Wrigley Field?" he asks.
Most of the newcomers are still feeling their way around Burnett's immense client roster, getting baptized with pro bono work for the Partnership for a Drug-Free America before moving on to bigger accounts like Kellogg's. ("The whole of Wieden is as big as the creative department," says Sree of the adjustment period. "There's a guy [here] who just mounts stuff.") Denberg and Hirsch were behind Burnett's successful late-summer pitch for Polaroid's Opal project.
Tutssel's other initiatives so far are more organizational, such as consolidating the agency's 175 creatives on three floors and eliminating a layer of ecd's to give those who create the work more responsibility.
The son of a Welsh cement-factory foreman and a homemaker, Tutssel figured he would go into teaching or coaching. But in his late teens, he visited London with a cousin (a creative director for design house Martin Peters) and met John Hegarty. "I got to talking about advertising and really understood it," recalls Tutssel, who went on to earn a design degree at Cardiff Art College in Wales.
It was after entering a contest for a scholarship that Tutssel met legendary London adman David Abbott, who was serving as a judge. Tutssel still models his own interactions with his staff on Abbott's tactful approach. "Abbott looked at [my entry] and said, 'The thought's there. You need to tune it this way,' " Tutssel says. "It was a good lesson, the way he did it—with charisma, maturity and respect."
Himself understated and reserved, Tutssel landed at Burnett London in 1986. Chicago chief creative officer Cheryl Berman first approached him with an offer in 1997 after he won a Grand Prix as creative director on the Mercedes "Skid Marks" print campaign. But it wasn't until late last year that he felt ready to cross the pond. "Chicago for me was the big gest opportunity, because that really is the core of the company," Tutssel says. "Every piece of business we have is a major opportunity. I don't think there are bad accounts or bad clients. It's just making a breakthrough."
Yet making a breakthrough in the U.S. can be considerably more challenging for a U.K.-trained creative. Not only is America traditionally more conservative when it comes to advertising, but the consumer base is much larger and more diverse.
"In London you're talking to one city, who's all watching the same TV and in on the same joke," adds Car michael Lynch associate cd Libby Brockhoff, who knows Tutssel from her days at London's Mother.
And, while acknowledging Tuts sel's chops and dedication to the work, some longtime Burnetters question how far he can push the traditionally staid client roster. "With the kind of clients we have, it's a war of attrition," says one source. "You don't want to sell them work they don't want."
Nevertheless, Tutssel insists a great idea will sell itself. He truly believes that great work can win awards and be effective, because both require sound thinking. He's encouraging the creative team to take a more ad-literate, smart approach to the work, giving the consumer credit for spending time on advertising. "I think people forget we're in the entertainment business," he says.
Tutssel also wants the agency to embrace planning, not from the research standpoint of many U.S. agencies but from its British origins. He encourages teams to think about different media opportunities and how to marry the message to them, such as making a billboard for the local Museum of Science and Industry's Titanic exhibit look as though it's sinking into Lake Michigan.
Tutssel admits his efforts so far have largely been "internally focused," with little attention on deepening his ties to the clients. "It's going to take time to cultivate relationships," Tutssel says. "The way to create relationships is to prove to [clients] you really are a partner."
While hammering out work, the client is always top of mind. As Tutssel reviews each piece brought to him, he always pointedly asks, "What does the client think?" And he volunteers to enter the fray with his creative team when they next meet with the Partnership for a Drug-Free Amer ica to pitch an idea that attempts to link marijuana smoking to date rape.
But some in the department say they have felt abandoned when it comes to selling through more creative work. "Digging in is great, if you're ready to stand behind the troops," says one insider.
Some of the gripes can be chalked up to sour grapes. Not all veterans object to Tutssel's scrutiny. "He takes a hard eye to the work," says creative director John Condon, who's been at the shop for 16 years. "[But] he's another strong voice in favor of good creative, and the more the better."
"He's getting people to question what they're doing everywhere," adds Berman.
When presented with a holiday campaign for local utility ComEd, how ever, Tutssel is nothing but gung ho, deeming it "fucking brilliant." But he's still getting a grip on America's idiosyncrasies. Looking at the work, which shows some of Chicago's more garishly decorated houses, he asks incredulously, "They really do this?"
Nine weeks after the Bears' season-opening win, Burnett is now wholly owned by Publicis Groupe, and is busy adding General Motors and some Procter & Gamble business from soon-to-close sister agency D'Arcy. And Michael Conrad has announced he will leave his post as Burnett's worldwide chief creative officer at the end of the year.
As the Bears drop to the bottom of the conference, Tutssel has a clearer understanding of what makes the game—and, perhaps, his task at Burnett—exciting. "At the end of the day, there's no substitute for the long throw or the long run," he says.