Leo Burnett (October 21, 1891 – June 7, 1971) was an American advertising executive and the founder of Leo Burnett Company, Inc.. He was responsible for creating some of advertising’s most well-known characters and campaigns of the 20th century, including Tony the Tiger, Charlie the Tuna, the Marlboro Man, the Maytag Repairman, United‘s “Fly the Friendly Skies,” Allstate‘s “Good Hands,” and for garnering relationships with multinational clients such as McDonald’s, Hallmark and Coca-Cola. In 1999, Burnett was named by Time Magazine as one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century.
Leo Burnett was born in St. Johns, Michigan, on October 21, 1891 to Noble and Rose Clark Burnett. Noble ran a dry goods store and as a young man, Burnett worked with his father, watching Noble as he designed ads for the business. After high school, Leo went on to study journalism at the University of Michigan and received his bachelor’s degree in 1914.
His first job out of college was as a reporter for the Peoria Journal Star in Peoria, Illinois. In 1917, Leo moved to Detroit and was hired to edit an in-house publication for Cadillac Clearing House, later becoming an advertising director for the same institution. At Cadillac, Leo met his advertising mentor, Theodore F. MacManus, whom Leo called “one of the great advertising men of all time.” MacManus ran the agency that handled Cadillac’s advertising.
During World War I, Leo joined the Navy for six months. However, his service was mostly spent at Great Lakes building a breakwater. After his time in the military, Leo returned to Cadillac for a short while. It was then when a few employees at Cadillac formed the LaFayette Motors Company – triggering Leo to move to Indianapolis to work for the new establishment. Soon after, Leo was offered a position at Homer McKee. He then left LaFayette and joined McKee, where Leo Burnett said of the founder, “(He) gave me my first feel of what I have come to regard as the “warm sell” as contrasted to the “hard sell” and “soft sell.” This was his first agency job.
After spending a decade at McKee’s, and working through the stock market crash of 1929, Leo left the company. In 1930, he moved to Chicago and was hired by Erwin, Wasey & Company, where he was employed for five years.
In 1935, Leo founded the Leo Burnett Company, Inc. in a suite at the Palmer House in downtown Chicago. Soon after, the operation moved to the 18th floor of the London Guarantee Building. Today, the agency has 9,000+ employees in over 85 offices globally.
On June 7, 1971, Leo Burnett went to his agency, pledging to his colleagues to cut back to working only three days per week due to some health problems. That evening, at the age of 79, he died of a heart attack at his family farm in Lake Zurich, Illinois.
Leo Burnett Company
A private company formed in 1935 and officially running under the name of ‘Leo Burnett Company, Inc.‘, the agency started with working capital of $50,000, eight employees and three clients. Now a part of Publicis Groupe, Leo Burnett is one of the largest agency networks with 85 offices in 69 countries and 9,000+ employees.
For the first several years, Burnett only billed about $1 million annually. By 1950, billings had increases to $22 million, and by 1954 the company was at $55 million annually. By the end of the 1950s, the Leo Burnett Company was billing $100 million annually.
Big black pencils
Apples have become a symbol for the Leo Burnett Company ever since Leo Burnett put out a bowl of apples at a reception when he opened his doors in the middle of the Great Depression, which caused a lot of talk, with people saying that it would not be long before Burnett would be selling apples on the street. Apples continued to be a symbol of Leo Burnett’s hospitality and success throughout the years.
Stars have become another symbol of Leo Burnett through Leo Burnett’s purported philosophy, “when you reach for the stars you may not quite get one, but you won’t come up with a handful of mud either.” They continue to represent this striving for greatness.
Companies Burnett worked with
- Green Giant (1935)
- Philip Morris Co. (1954)
- Pillsbury (1944)
- Kellogg’s (1949)
- Procter & Gamble (1952)
- Commonwealth Edison (1954)
- Maytag (1955)
- Allstate (1957)
- Heinz Pet Products (1958)
- Starkist (1958)
- First Brands (1961)
- Schlitz Brewing Company (1961)
- United Airlines (1965)
- General Motors Oldsmobile (1967)
- Nestle (1967)
- Keebler Co. (1968)
- Memorex (1968)
- Mattel (1970)
- Kraft Foods Kraft Foods (1984)
- PubNub (2014)
- WWF (2014)
- Jolly Green Giant [Green Giant]
- Tony The Tiger [Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes]
- Hubert The Lion [Harris Bank]
- Charlie The Tuna [Star-Kist]
- Pillsbury Doughboy [Pillsbury]
- Keebler Elves [Keebler]
- Morris The Cat [9 Lives]
- Toucan Sam [Kellogg’s Fruit Loops]
- Maytag Repairman [Maytag]
Leo Burnett used dramatic realism in his advertising, the Soft sell approach to build brand equity. Burnett believed in finding the inherent drama of products and presenting it in advertising through warmth, shared emotions and experiences. His advertising drew from heartland-rooted values using simple, strong and instinctive imagery that talked to people. He was also known for using cultural archetypes in his copy, by creating mythical creatures that represented American values. This is evident on such campaigns as Jolly Green Giant, Tony the Tiger, Pillsbury Doughboy and more famously the Marlboro Man.
Leo Burnett was known for keeping a folder in the lower left-hand corner of his desk called “Corny Language”. He collected words, phrases, and analogies that struck him as being particularly apt in expressing an idea. This was not meant by maxims, gags, or slang, but words, phrases and analogies which convey a feeling of honesty and that drive home a clear point.