Frozen out: for ten years Pat Burnham was the creative center of arguably the country’s most creative shop. It turns out he was on thin ice

In Minneapolis, commercial director Rick Dublin’s annual….Then Pat Burnham walked in. There was just the hint of a smile dancing around his mouth and a crude cardboard sign hanging around his neck. It read: Will Work for Food.”It was pure Burnham,” says one Minneapolis creative. “In a single stroke, people knew whatever else he might have lost, he hadn’t lost his perspective.” Or his legendary sense of humor–dark, wry and usually with a double edge.A complex chain of events brought the two Pats to a point early this month where only one could stay. Cut to the bone, and you find both professional and personal differences. That alone would make this just an ordinary management power struggle. The guy whose name is on the door won. Not a surprise.But on March 3, when Burnham’s office was painfully stripped bare and the contents boxed up, one of the most coveted creative director spots in the country was unexpectedly available, and one of the most respected creative directors in the business was on the open market. Left hanging in the air was a singular question: Exactly what should “the” creative director for the ’90s be? The answer lies in how one weighs substance versus style and how much of both qualities a top creative director needs to keep an agency competitive nowadays.That became the line in the sand on that March day in Minneapolis. Since then Fallon staff, outsiders who work with the agency, clients and former clients have scrambled to straddle the line. Even Burnham refuses to take sides. Like kids in a divorce who can’t stop loving both parents, most Fallon employees are struggling to figure out new ways of relating to the two Pats and are working hard not to offend either one. “The only difference in this case is we all knew they couldn’t stay together,” says one Fallon creative. “But most of us had come to the conclusion that they shouldn’t stay together.”Many trace the problems back to the grueling MasterCard pitch last year. “That’s at least when it all came into sharp focus,” says one Fallon staffer. In the final round of the review, which carried a heavy emotional as well as financial tab, Ammirati & Puris won against Fallon McElligott and incumbent Lintas:USA. The decision came on the heels of the Compaq review, another hard-fought battle Fallon ended up losing to Ammirati.Besides the stress of the pitch itself, the tension over MasterCard came from divisions within the agency. “On MasterCard, not everyone wanted in,” relates one creative. From the beginning it was shaping up to be a testy review, one that Wieden & Kennedy opted not to pitch. “But once we made the commitment, we threw everything we had at it. When we lost again, it was tough. We all took it hard. Fallon took it really hard.”The agency had to cope with near-weekly strategy changes from MasterCard and its excessive and obsessive demands. During presentations, Fallon took the lead on laying out the creative strategy while Burnham ceded him that role. “It might have worked if the two had been different people,” says one insider. “But Fallon minded. He felt Burnham wasn’t there for him, at least not in the way he wanted him to be there for him. And what he wanted, Burnham couldn’t be.”What followed were six months of soul-searching. “It was a post mortem on why we lost and how we could change the agency so we wouldn’t lose another one like this,” says one Fallon executive. “In looking at how to solve that problem, we did everything we knew how to to work it out,” says another Fallon veteran. “When it came right down to it, everybody concluded this wasn’t going to happen from Pat Burnham’s standpoint.” The process included what one insider calls “family therapy”: a counselor who worked with top management to try to resolve the conflicts.Fallon was on vacation and not available for comment for this story, but those close to him say a divorce was inevitable. “Fallon picked at this like an open sore for months,” says one. “It became clear to him that it wasn’t going to heal, and by then he had become obsessed with the fact the agency was always ‘poised’ for greatness. He decided Burnham alone wouldn’t get him there.” And once Fallon came to that conclusion, Burnham’s fate was sealed, according to an agency source. “Friendship is really important to Fallon, but it does not seem that difficult for him to give it up.”Burnham sensed as much. “Pat (Burnham) told me six months ago he might be leaving,” says director Joe Pytka, who worked with Burnham years ago on the US West campaign. “The truth is, he was terribly wronged at that agency. He is a fantastic creative person.”While some believe the breakup started with MasterCard, others say it began even earlier, when Fallon spent most of 18 months at parent agency Scali, McCabe, Sloves in New York, trying to help it through a rough period that followed the loss of Volvo. “Burnham’s the kind of guy everybody loves,” says one Fallon staffer, “and Fallon was an absentee father.” It was, as another describes it, as if Fallon held onto the soul of the agency, while Burnham, without trying, had won its heart. “Fallon could never forgive him for that,” says one agency insider, “and Burnham was sitting on the other side of the table, not understanding what the hell he needed to be forgiven for.”Burnham seems caught in a Catch-22. Those who know him well-both inside and outside the agency–describe him as an extraordinary creative director who is uncomfortable in the limelight. A gentle guy who doesn’t like to hurt people, but someone who won’t back down from a fight. He has a sign, on temporary loan to his daughter Kelly, a top high school soccer player, that reads: “Kicking Ass and Taking Names.” In the seventh grade, when a teacher gave him an F on an open-book test for “copying out of the book,” he challenged the grade. Burnham had lost the book a week earlier. “I still got the F,” he says, in a voice so quiet you sometimes have to lean into it, “but I decided I wasn’t going to take shit off of anyone ever again.” He is honest, they say, to a fault. Not, they add, politic. Not a poser. Sometimes a prophet. “They generally kill prophets, don’t they?” muses one Fallon staffer.Under Burnham’s guidance, the agency extended and deepened its creative artistry, for clients like Lee Jeans, Porsche, Jim Beam, Timex and Time magazine. As in years past, Fallon dominated The One Show in 1992, outpacing creative leaders like Chiat/Day, Wieden & Kennedy, BBDO and Goodby, Berlin & Silverstein. The agency consistently remains a place industry creatives have on their short list. Those who go there rarely leave. Many who leave come back. It’s Burnham who is universally credited with creating an environment “where nobody’s watching their backs,” says a creative. “People really are happy here.”These are strange times when that kind of creative legacy is called into question. “The puzzle here is that I truly think there are no villains,” says one creative. “There is a theory that companies that begin small start out like families. And as they grow and change, not everyone changes or grows in the same way. Sometimes the only solution is for some people to leave.” Pat Fallon, he says, is no monster, and Pat Burnham is more than a great creative-but not one who happens to be a great song and dance man.Burnham is, at times, both sides of the coin. One minute someone describes him as an introvert and the next tells this story: Burnham doesn’t “look” like a creative. His hair is always neatly trimmed. He wears glasses. He could, in a suit, pass for a suit. But at a recent Midwestern creative symposium, Burnham showed up wearing a zoot suit, a long ponytall, shades and an opening line: “I hate it when people say I don’t look creative.” He brought down the house. Burnham comes at life and at advertising from a slightly different angle. Sometimes people relate, sometimes they don’t. Early on, his copywriting partner, Bill Miller, started keeping a journal of Burnham’s observations. From Miller’s “Burnham Out of Context,” here’s Burnham on listening to too many people about a creative idea: “It’s like we’re two guys building a house and another guy comes along and doesn’t like the color of the trim–so we blow up the house.” On reviving an old idea that didn’t sell the first time: “If the client didn’t like the little baby with the tar on it, he’s not going to like the big baby with the tar on it.” On life: “Here we are swinging along on the monkey bars of life and I don’t know about you Miller, but for me there’s some bars missing.”Burnham’s m.o. has always been high-octane adrenaline, off-the-wall humor, a consummate team player. If he liked an idea–his or anyone else’s–everyone on the floor would know it in seconds. “There’d be this face, beaming like a cherub,” says one creative, “accompanied by this string of expletives as he’d jump around acting out a spot.” At one point during the Federal Express pitch some years ago–the agency won–the sign on his door read “128 and counting.” That’s how many storyboards he’d done. He was working day and night, sometimes at home. When his wife, Shari, walked in one day and found him showing the Roto-Rooter serviceman a FedEx layout, she sent him back to the office. In the agency’s early days–Burnham was the first creative the original partners hired–every time Bob Van Horn sold a client a campaign, Burnham would crank up a music box that played “God Save the Queen.” Van Horn is not British. What Van Horn, a former college professor who was new to the agency business at time, remembers is the way Burnham did the storyboards. “I would have the layouts of ads to present to the client, and I would hold them up and pasted on the back would be written instructions from Burnham,” says Van Horn, now vp of client services at Miami’s Crispin & Porter. “It’d read: ‘No. 1, say this, No. 2, say this, No. 3, don’t listen to them when they say this.'”Through the years Burnham filled his office with flocks of pink plastic flamingos that he would paint in wild colors and intricate designs. A huge buffalo head hung on the wall over his desk. An old slot machine stood in a corner. These were the conventional touches that set off the Victorian painting of a young cross-dresser and the Charlie McCarthy dummy in drag who was seductively draped around the Three Stooges’ Moe dummy. Somewhere along the way, you would come to notice the awards–and there were literally dozens–local, national and international.Burnham was just what the agency needed after Tom McElligott left in 1988, according to those at Fallon at the time. “When Tom left, it was like he pulled the pin on a grenade, tossed it over his shoulder and walked away,” says one agency executive who was there. “A lot of people thought the agency would fall apart. But it didn’t, it got better.”Where McElligott’s style was to keep a certain distance, “to stonewall,” Burnham was all about inclusion and acceptance. He flattened the way the department was structured. “Burnham recognized that there’s more than one kind of good,” says Mike Lescarbeau, a top creative at the agency. “He allowed other styles to develop. When Tom was here, we took the rap that we had a more one-dimensional style.”Like everything else, Burnham took the concept of management style and did what has come to be known by his associates as “Burnham-ized it.” When Lescarbeau came back to the agency in 1991 after four years in London at another shop, he hoped to slip quietly into his office. “When I walked off the elevator, there were 60 people in full dress uniform playing ‘When the Saints Go Marching In,'” recalls Lescarbeau. Another creative says that’s a clue to Burnham’s genius–finding just the right bizarre touch to motivate someone. “If Mike had just been allowed to fade into the background, he wouldn’t be doing the kind of work he’s doing now, which is astounding,” he says. “Burnham’s band made him a big deal, and he had something he had to live up to.”Despite such leadership skills and creative accomplishments, Burnham was still less than what Fallon wanted when it came to impressing clients, particularly prospective clients. Fallon is determined to move the agency to the next level, from creative boutique to national player. He doesn’t want to lose another MasterCard. “The ultimate challenge is to take the quality of work to the largest clients,” says one Fallon executive. To do that, say those who know him, Fallon is convinced he needs a creative director who can dazzle clients in pitches. “Fallon feels a lot of our rivals are led by creative people who are polished,” says one creative at the agency. “And that leaves us at a disadvantage.”One source, who counts Burnham among his friends, argues there’s no real dichotomy between great inside guy and successful front man, given enough time. “If what Fallon believes the agency needs now is a creative director who walks into a new business pitch, utters a few memorable phrases and people get goose bumps or feel inspired, I don’t see Burnham as that person,” he says. “But over the years, clients came to love him. It’s a matter of deciding what exactly you want.”John Felt remembers when he was a vp at US West, one of the first accounts Burnham worked on at Fallon. “Pat can truly listen well,” says Felt, now retired. “That’s why at first I thought him to be quiet–he tends to pay attention to the client.”Ironically, one of Burnham’s strengths as a creative director-pushing the teams to take more responsibility for their work and play a bigger role in selling it–made him vulnerable. “The agency isn’t going to fall apart without Pat,” says one Fallon creative, “and maybe that’s one of his greatest legacies.” Says Bill Miller, “I learned not to just think of myself as a copywriter. You understood your job wasn’t to fill short orders. If the client wanted fries, you didn’t ask, ‘Do you want ketchup, too?’ You asked, ‘Are you sure that’s what you’re hungry for?’ It’s a process, a way of thinking. Pat never just filled in the blanks, and he wouldn’t let anyone else just fill in the blanks, either.”Fallon has formed a search committee to find Burnham’s successor. The members will look both inside and outside of the agency. They plan to take their time, since the brief on who the new creative should be is not a simple one. “We’re looking for somebody who can marry the outside skills and business understanding and empathy that we feel are important,” says one search committee member. “A creative leader who can sit with clients and really internalize their problems. But that has to be married with the ability to gain the respect of one of the most talented creative departments in the country.” “Pat (Fallon) has promised to keep us involved in this,” says one creative. “There are some of us who wish it could have worked out differently. But this is Fallon’s agency, and he has the fight to have a creative director alongside of him that he can link arms with and really be a team. We have to give him that shot.” “It’s scary,” says another. “If we do this right, we’ll only get better. If we do this wrong, I don’t know what that would mean.”For Burnham, his departure means a chance to tap another creative side. His phone is ringing with tempting offers from other agencies. But Burnham notes that he has wanted to direct commercials for years, and those who’ve worked with him say he has a remarkable instinct for television. He’s toying with the idea of setting up a base of operations in a condo in Los Angeles and commuting to Minneapolis until his daughter graduates from high school. He spent a recent Sunday looking for a desk for the office he doesn’t yet have. Right now he’s leaning toward one that is massive wood and wrought iron. His son Robb, a 24-year-old art director at Martin Williams in Minneapolis, spotted a towering, stuffed grizzly that he believes is the only other other touch the room would need. Burnham is trying to convince his wife that if they get the bear, the buffalo head would look great just outside the front door.Soon after the buffalo head and everything else was moved out of his office, Burnham drove to Lake Minnetonka. There are soft spots in the lake’s ice these days as Minnesota moves toward spring. Still, Burnham guided his fire-engine red Porsche, loaded down with photography equipment and a photographer, out near the middle of the lake for a shoot. Burnham was supposed to be ice fishing. The photographer used black spray paint to create the illusion of a hole in the ice. The prop–a fish from the local grocery store. The camera was on a tripod and camera equipment lay in random heaps behind it. Just as the sun was setting and Burnham was posed with the fishing rod in hand, a huge four-wheel drive roared up next to him and a guy who could pass for Bigfoot in a parka lumbered out. He walked over to Burnham and said, “Any luck?” A grin danced around the corners of Burnham’s mouth. “How could I say no?”Copyright Adweek L.P. (1993)