‘Perfect Storm’ Returns Rich Stoddart To Burnett

Although he has been gone from the agency for nearly 10 years, Leo Burnett’s new U.S. president, Rich Stoddart, still knows his Burnett handbook. When discussing the DNA of the agency where he began his career, Stoddart, 41, who rejoins the shop this week, recalled one of the founder’s more famous platitudes: “When you reach for the stars, you may not get one, but you won’t come up with a handful of mud.” It’s a frame of mind the former Burnett account director on McDonald’s hopes to rekindle at the $3.5 billion Publicis Groupe network’s Chicago headquarters. It’s a very different agency from the stalwart independent he left in 1995. Stoddart, whose decade away included stints as head of account management at Publicis sibling Fallon in Minneapolis and, since 2001, as vp of marketing communications at Ford Motor Co., takes the helm of a holding-company unit that is looking to get beyond recent management turmoil and sluggish new-business performance.

Q. You must have had other opportunities to return to the agency side. Why now?

A. Life is all about timing. Ford is in a place right now where we launched six new products in the past year. I actually looked at the people at Ford at the beginning of this year and said, “At some point, we need to talk about my future. But I will commit to you through those launches.” That gives you a sense of why now.

What did U.S. CEO and worldwide president Tom Bernardin have to do to convince you that this was the right move?

They didn’t have to do a lot, because I’d done a lot of the thinking myself. In some ways this was the perfect storm. I had come to the conclusion over the past nine to 12 months that this is what I’m born to do. I’m born to be in the agency business. And it was only a matter of time. In that context, and given the fact that I know the brand, I know the people and I know the client list, there wasn’t a big twist my arm and convince me this is the right thing to do. I did say to Tom, “If you expect me to walk in as someone who’s been away from the brand for 10 years and go back to what the brand was 10 years ago, I don’t know how to do that.”

Bernardin has said the agency needs to get over its inferiority complex. How do you plan to address that?

I never sensed it from the outside. I haven’t been in the building. If there was one, I don’t know to what degree there was and what the nature was. I do know, from talking to people there, that they’re very much in a moving forward mode—that they’ve changed and that they are ready to move forward and look forward and make stuff happen.

How has being a client changed your perspective on agency/client relationships?

I think it’s very easy to underestimate the degree of difficulty of the job that a client has. The complexity—the fact that your biggest concern of that moment of that day may not be the ad or the Web site or the outdoor board or the radio spot that someone may present you. The other thing I appreciate more is the accountability you have for the results of what you do, and how closely you live and die by that.

What’s different about the agency business that appeals to you over being on the client side?

The agency business is really about three things: First and foremost, it’s about ideas. It’s about people who make those ideas possible. And it’s about the culture that unifies those people. That is the fuel that the agency business runs on. There’s this purity of this thing called an idea. And there’s magic when you find an idea that communicates something in a powerful way.

What do you consider your greatest accomplishment at Ford?

The one that has been the most important and the most impactful on the company has been the launch of the F-150. It was the most important launch in the history of the company, as Bill Ford said. From a creative standpoint, I’m actually most proud of our work in the branded- entertainment realm—the things we did with 24, with American Idol and most recently the things we’ve done with American Dreams. I think they are at the forefront of some very interesting space.

How do you apply the lessons you learned about branded entertainment to Burnett?

Those initiatives were all about big ideas. The only thing I would say is the power of thinking between the creative idea, the media distribution channel and the content provider of that entertainment—the importance of that integration—is something I will take with me. It’s a hard space to navigate; it’s different every time. But if one of the three elements of the stool doesn’t work correctly, it will not happen. So if you don’t have distribution, you have a great idea that no one sees. If you don’t have great content, then you don’t have a great environment to put your branded entertainment in. And obviously you have to have a big branded-entertainment idea, or you’ve wasted your time.

Your first and most pressing task could be defending the account of the U.S. Army, which has extended its $200 million review and is staying with Burnett for the next six months. You could very well be pegged as the guy who either kept it or lost it.

I can only tell you what you already know. It obviously is a very important piece of business. There’s been terrific work that the agency can be very proud of for that piece of business, and the agency, I’m sure, is fully committed to doing terrific work for that client. Beyond that, I can’t tell you. I haven’t started my job there yet. Walking into a position like this, it’s absolutely incumbent on me to prove my worth on every piece of business—every piece of business we have and every piece of business we pitch. That’s what my agency, the people who work at Leo Burnett, are going to expect of me. And that’s what I need to prove to them—not only what I need to prove to them, it’s what I owe them.