Cheryl Berman On The Spot

Berman’s first job out of the University of Illinois was working as a cub reporter for her uncle. Two weeks into it, he fired her, saying, “If you want to make things up, go into advertising.” Armed with a portfolio that included a jingle for avocados (to the tune of “Desperado”), she landed a job as a copywriter at Leo Burnett in 1974. Since April 1996, Berman, now 52, has been chief creative officer of the agency’s U.S. operations and is now helping search for a successor. Once her replacement is on board, she’ll be taking on a broader role in the network’s international operations. Q. How did you go from working for your uncle to working for Leo Burnett?

A. My uncle really wanted me out of his paper. He knew some people in town and said he could get me a job. I didn’t really know what [Burnett] did when I interviewed here. I knew it was advertising, but I didn’t know if it was print or what. In some ways, it’s absolutely great to be that naive.

Who’s had the greatest influence on your advertising career?

Leo Burnett. When I started here, coming from journalism, I wanted to find out who this guy was, what he wanted to do and how he set the bar. I was also very influenced by the Beatles. [They’d say,] “What’s the next song going to be?” And it was something out of the box that surprised people. In a sense, that’s what we do [at Burnett].

What advice will you have for your successor?

I think you have to respect our brand. We’re a big agency. You can’t get everybody at Leo Burnett in your office, unless that office is an amphitheater. We are not an agency that’s about one thing. We are about building leadership brands.

How do you see your upcoming international role?

McDonald’s has turned into a global brand. Disney is becoming a global brand. This is what I want to do. If I can get somebody else working on the floor plans and organizations, it’s better. I have the ability to cut through the clutter and say, “What about doing this?” That’s a fun place to be.

What was your first ad?

The first print ad I did was a United [sponsorship] ad for the Nittany Lions [Penn State’s football team]. “How do you handle a Nittany Lion? Very carefully.” It seemed really smart at the time.

What’s the last ad you created from scratch?

The last real campaign I worked on was the Hallmark “Rememberin'” campaign [from May 2002]. I wrote the line, wrote the music and really worked with people on the spots. What’s been nice is a lot of people will come to me and say, “Help me with the music.” I’ve been writing the Disney stuff for a long time. I throw out lines to people; I throw out concepts. It’s like being a doctor. If you stop doing surgery and you don’t stay with it, I don’t think you’re capable of doing it anymore.

How do you separate out your natural prejudices when someone presents an idea that you wouldn’t have come up with?

You have to say, “How is this going to perform?” There’s no style of advertising here at Burnett. I don’t look at things in terms of what I personally like. Having a journalism background, I’d like to see some more stories, more depth. There are so many jokes out there. In award shows for advertising, Dumb and Dumber will win out over Forrest Gump, which I think is kind of sad.

What work are you most proud of?

The real stories. Like the “Mike” commercial I did about a Down syndrome kid working at McDonald’s—we filmed his parents and his school and his working at McDonald’s—the whole reality of it. It was very touching to people. It got the No. 2 spot in the Super Bowl, and he got to meet the president. You felt like, wow. This is advertising as culture.

If you weren’t in advertising, what would you be doing?

It would definitely have to do with music. It’s such an amazing medium. There’s a statistic that says music is more mood- altering than drugs, believe it or not. It can put you 50 years ago, or it can put you in the moment. It can make you feel sad or happy or nostalgic. It’s such an untapped resource that we have in this business and, I think, in general.

How do you feel about the commoditization of music in terms of marketing?

I always ask the question, “What are you trying to say with that? What are you trying to do?” You have to be smart about how you use music. Sometimes it’s not about words; it’s total emotion. How do you create the mood without overtly getting into something that’s manipulative? There has to be an element of surprise.

If you could change one thing about your job, what would it be?

There are never enough hours in the day to do everything you want to do. Sometimes I’ll find myself here at 9 o’clock wondering, “How did it get this late?”

What is your dream assignment?

I would love to do a movie about the life of Leo Burnett. I think it would be a great story.

Name one person you’re dying to work with.

How about Quentin Tarantino? I think he’s very surprising. I think he takes things over the edge. Everybody’s afraid. Fear makes us bring it back to this place, which is my biggest fear—that we’re all going to be living in the “great vanilla,” that we’re all going to get researched to death. Quentin Tarantino has no fear. I think it would be fascinating to see his take on the next commercial.