Burnett Has Its Own ‘Saatchi 17’ Problem

Staffers set up new shop with hope of Kellogg's business

Call them the “Burnett 8.”

In a situation reminiscent to the “Saatchi 17,” a group of agency General Mills’ staffers who walked out in 2005 with the expectation of working for their cereal client elsewhere, last Friday eight Leo Burnett staffers with Kellogg's experience left to start their own agency. In a court injunction filed against them by Burnett, the Chicago agency alleges the renegade group are in line for a multimillion-dollar Kellogg's CRM project which they worked on at Burnett and its marketing services arm, Arc—and that's not okay, since their departure would essentially force the client's hand.

Burnett and Arc have sued former employees Amanda Ashley, Nate Buechler, Allison Chaplain, Jeremiah Dy-Johnson, Kristy Gibbs, Lisa Hamming, David Rasho and Matthew Johnson in Cook County Court. In the complaint, the agency said that on late Friday, November 2, seven of the 11 active employees working on the agency’s Kellogg's CRM project, along with one other staffer involved with another Burnett, Arc CRM project, were resigning, effective immediately. The Publicis Groupe shop said that three of the eight told Burnett they were starting their own business.

According to Courthouse News Service, Burnett alleges in the complaint: “The timing of the resignations was intentionally designed to maximize the defecting employees’ ability to persuade Kellogg's that they were the only people capable of completing the CRM project. Additionally, the defecting employees know the time deadlines under which Burnett-Arc is operating on the Kellogg's project and in leaving when they did, it is apparent they assumed Burnett-Arc would not be able to meet the client’s deadlines and that, as a result, the client would have ‘no choice’ but to hire defendants as the replacement for Burnett-Arc.”

Burnett admitted it will be tough to meet its Kellogg's project deadlines after losing those employees.

“Defandants know that, too, and it is obvious that they factored that into the timing of their resignations, as they know Kellogg's will not endure a delay of up to six months or more for Burnett-Arc to try to fill these suddenly open positions,” the complaint said.

Furthermore, “The harm to Burnett-Arc of these abrupt defections goes beyond the potential loss of this particular project for Kellogg's…The Kellogg's CRM project is a showcase project that would have enabled Burnett-Arc to leverage what the company learned from the project to create similar optimization projects for other clients. If the defecting employees are permitted to continue working on and finish the project, they then will try to claim the project as their own in efforts to showcase it to other potential clients, this depriving Burnett-Arc of the value of its investment in the project.”

The defendants could not be reached for comment. In a statement, the agency said about the litigation:

“Leo Burnett is being aggressive in its handling of this situation, protecting our client, our investment, our people and our intellectual property. We will not comment further on pending litigation or personnel matters.”

As for the Saatchi 17, the General Mills business never materialized at the upstart agency founded by Mike Burns, who had been the client's worldwide account director at Saatchi and worked on the account for 25 years. After Burns walked out of Saatchi with loyal colleagues, Interpublic backed his new shop, oneseven, but pulled the plug after two years.

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