What’s Going On at Burnett?

As the year began, Leo Burnett’s newly installed management team figured 2001 would be a year of transition as the agency prepared to go public.

They had no idea.

A string of high-profile pitches that failed to convert, executive departures and uncertainty over the much-ballyhooed IPO’s fate have left the $3 billion agency looking rudderless.

The latest indication of instability came with the departure last week of U.S. CEO Brad Brinegar after only 10 months on the job. At the same time, in an effort to boost creative quality at headquarters, the shop imported Mark Tutssel from its London office to be the No. 2 U.S. creative.

Sources said Brinegar’s tenure was marked by a quiet power struggle with worldwide president Bob Bren nan, who is responsible for North America. “Bob’s a strong-willed guy. [Brad’s] a strong-willed guy,” said one executive. “It was not made clear who was in charge of the U.S.”

Said one insider: “No one can tell who’s on top from one day to the next.”

Brennan was given a “geographic responsibility” for North America and had begun implementing his vision for the agency’s direction. That bumped up against Brinegar’s duties, said Linda Wolf, Leo Burnett worldwide CEO, attributing the problems to a case of “too many cooks.”

“There was too much overlap there —it didn’t make sense,” Wolf said. “It is as simple as that. I’m sure that people would like it to be a much more intriguing story, but that was it.”

Brinegar added that in addition to “overlaps that created confusion,” there were “philosophical differences” among top management.

Brennan, Brinegar and chief creative officer Cheryl Berman all took their positions at the start of the year. Wolf, who had just moved into her role, made Brinegar CEO, sources said. Brennan was brought over from Starcom MediaVest Group by Bcom3 CEO Roger Haupt.

From the start, there was confusion over who had ultimate control over the agency, sources said. “The biggest problem was a whole bunch of people in new roles and nobody coaching them,” one insider said. “The team was not set up for success.”

While the agency has gained business from existing clients such as Kellogg’s and Disney, the agency’s most notable failure has been its inability to make the finals in several high-profile reviews this year: AT&T Wireless ($400 million), BellSouth ($120 million), Michelin ($60 million) and Boeing ($70 million).

New business is just one area that has given the agency trouble. Berman acknowledged Burnett has not made the most of its creative options.

“We want to make sure every opportunity isn’t a missed opportunity,” Berman said of Tutssel’s hire. “I think that’s what Mark is going to help us do.”

As deputy chief creative officer, Tut ssel sits between chief creative officer Berman and the agency’s 11 ecds, though not all will report to him.

Berman said she went outside the U.S. because none of the ecds were “exactly the right fit” for the post. Some sources intimated that Tutssel was hired at the suggestion of worldwide creative officer Michael Conrad, who was not available for comment.

Tutssel is expected to smooth the relationship between Berman and some of the creative staff. But while some say she has a reputation for being controlling and opinionated, Berman has strong ties to some ecds and clients. Brennan is also said to be pleased with her handling of client meetings.

Tutssel will be expected to re invigorate Burnett’s reel, which has not been well regarded by the Global Product Committee that reviews creative work from all Burnett offices, sources said.

“I came here with my eyes wide open,” Tutssel said. “If we can get it all together and point it in the right direction, we can make it the best agency in the world.”

A large part of that will be to “up the ante on the craft” behind the work and its importance, Tutssel said.

“Every single person in this building works [figuratively] for the creative department,” Tutssel said. “Quality is everything.”

Looming over all of this is Burnett parent Bcom3’s pending initial public offering and rumors of a possible buyout. When the Bcom3 deal was finalized last March, Burnett shareholders looked forward to having a tangible value for their holdings and a place to sell them other than back to the company. Their golden handcuffs began to loosen.

Executives acknowledge Burnett is going through a transition. The shop has rejiggered its bonus policy, placing more emphasis on goals than on time served. The agency is also implementing a more rigorous employee-review plan. While common in most other shops, the changes are meant to end the image of the company as benevolent provider.

“There were times when working for Leo Burnett was better than working for the government,” said one staffer.

With Brinegar gone, Brennan has solidified his position as an agency leader, giving the shop some much-needed direction, sources said.

“One strong leadership voice will make a big difference,” said an in sider. “When we’ve worked together, we’ve won new business hand over fist. When we haven’t, we’ve struggled.”