Early Reviews For Burnett’s Bernardin

Leo Burnett’s new worldwide president and U.S. CEO, Tom Bernardin, issued his first agencywide memo in March, commanding his troops to stop degrading their founder’s image with piercings and tattoos in presentation materials.

A few days later, a poster appeared next to Bernardin’s office. “Hey, new guy,” it read. “Count me in. It’s time to reclaim the full power of Leo Burnett.” It was covered in signatures.

The Publicis Groupe agency that created Tony the Tiger and Charlie the Tuna has spent four years trying to make itself hip. Now Bernardin, 50, wants to to make Leo Burnett Leo Burnett again. And he is using a style staffers at his former agency, Interpublic Group’s Lowe in New York, didn’t see.

Critics at Lowe said he was not fully engaged with all clients, earning the nickname “the invisible CEO.” At Burnett, Bernardin, the first outsider to take the top U.S. post at the $3.5 billion agency in its nearly 70-year history, so far has not made the same mistake. He has met with the largest clients, including McDonald’s, Allstate, Procter & Gamble and Kellogg.

The former car guy has been close to General Motors at Burnett unit Chemistri in Detroit. The client credits Bernardin for keeping things steady after Chemistri CEO Patrick Sherwood and chief creative Gary Topolewski left. “He very quickly was able to marshall the agency resources necessary to meet the needs of our business in the short term,” said Cadillac GM Mark LaNeve.

Burnetters call their new leader candid and charming, but most are withholding judgment. “I’ve not seen much of a presence yet,” said one. Besides, Burnett is still playing more defense than offense in new business. It lost Toys R Us’ creative account ($120 million) in May and is defending the U.S. Army ($200 million), which is in mandated review. Philip Morris is considering putting its corporate-responsibility account ($40 million) in play as well.

Last month’s $40 million Petsmart victory was its first in a competitive review since the December win of a McDonald’s assignment. Before that, its last major review victory was Gateway ($150 million) in March 2003. Burnett also recently pitched client Morgan Stanley’s Discover Card business, according to sources.

Bernardin promoted planning director Rick Houghton-Larsen to chief strategy officer in June. Houghton-Larsen will work with CMO Ben Kline to establish a pitch team of four to six senior members, Kline said.

Last week, Bernardin overhauled the creative department. After trying to mold itself as a creative hot shop, with top creatives floating among accounts and every piece of work seen by chief creative officer Cheryl Berman and deputy Mark Tutssel, the 210-person department now has a more traditional structure. Seven people were promoted to group creative heads, overseeing certain accounts, with 21 executive creative directors providing day-to-day leadership on each account. The move, Bernardin said, will give more senior leaders more accountability and free up Tutssel and Berman from day-to-day management of the work. The seven group heads are also a possible succession pool for Berman, although she has not announced any plans to leave.

A little more than 100 days into the Bernardin era, Publicis CEO Maurice Lévy said Burnett’s new chief “is improving the operations and the structure of the agency to prepare it for taking maximum advantage of the new opportunities to come.”

But Bernardin knows time is of the essence. His plan for Burnett “is not going to be a long drawn-out process,” he promised.