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condon_print_preferred.jpgLeo Burnett/Chicago finally acknowledged what we first reported a while ago -- John Condon is out as chief creative officer. Per an agency spokeswoman, Condon's future plans are unclear, but he apparently hopes to return to the creative front lines at another agency. Condon spent 22 years at Burnett, the last three as the agency's top creative. Burnett President Rich Stoddart tapped him for that job after Cheryl Berman exited that post in 2005.

Burnett's global Chief Creative Officer Mark Tutssel will oversee Burnett's flagship creative department while a worldwide search is conducted for Condon's successor. Candidates from within the agency will be looked at too, the spokeswoman said. The exit of Condon now leaves both Burnett and DDB/Chicago -- two of the city's largest ad shops -- without creative leaders. DDB has yet to name the successor to Paul Tilley, who jumped to his death from a hotel window in late February, 2008.

A Burnett spokeswoman believes the top creative post at the agency could be hugely appealing to the right candidate. "We want someone with some chutzpa who will attract attention," said the spokeswoman. But like DDB, Burnett has some image issues that may make it tougher to lure a top creative talent. Burnett has been in a major new business slump recently, and it didn't help when news of a whistleblower lawsuit alleging overbilling of the United States Army (a former Burnett client) first surfaced in January. Burnett paid more than $15 million to settle the lawsuit out of court.

One ex-Burnett creative we recently heard from was impressed that we were able to "break through the Kremlin" to get the news of Condon's exit. Not exactly the most flattering description of Burnett, but it comes from someone who knows the place well. It's a telling description of how agencies such as Burnett -- and others -- have morphed in the age of the conglomerates that now largely control the ad industry.

Meanwhile, Condon was sent on his way with just a brief statement from Burnett Global CEO Tom Bernardin: "As chief creative officer, he has improved our creative product and global ranking. He's an extraordinary creative, and we will miss him."

So the plot thickens. After we reported Friday that John Condon appeared to be out as Leo Burnett/Chicago's chief creative officer and then heard nothing from Burnett after attempting to reach an agency spokesperson for official comment, Burnett now is playing coy about Condon's current and future status with the agency. But all signs indicate Condon's future won't involve running Burnett's creative department, though an agency spokeswoman maintained Monday that Condon still is the top creative today -- as this is written.

As we also reported on Friday, sources continue to say Condon may have been offered a lesser post in the agency's creative department that he could take if he were willing to swallow his ego and accept such a role. If Condon concludes his employment prospects beyond Burnett are slim to nil in the current economic environment, the dethroned creative leader just might opt for a lesser job at the agency. But it could make for an uncomfortable situation within Burnett's creative department.

The confusion at Burnett about how to handle -- from a public relations standpoint -- Condon's exit from the top creative post may stem in part from concerns about clients that hadn't yet been fully prepped for an upheaval within the agency's creative unit. It's also entirely possible Burnett doesn't yet have it's post-Condon creative leadership game plan fully in place, so it is letting Condon and his fate twist in the wind while the agency figures out where it goes from here. And believe us when we say there is a lot to figure out.

John Condon is believed to be out as Leo Burnett/Chicago's chief creative officer, informed sources report. A Burnett spokesperson could not be immediately reached for comment.

The agency's top creative leader was evidently tossed to show the agency is supposedly serious about turning itself around and boosting its image, which has taken a major beating in recent years. Just days ago, Burnett Worldwide CEO Tom Bernardin and Burnett/Chicago President Rich Stoddart were busy telling trade publication Advertising Age about the agency's so-called "spectacular" 2008, but the year apparently wasn't spectacular enough to keep the agency -- one of Chicago's largest -- from dumping its top creative executive.

But truth-be-told, Condon was pretty much a non-starter from the get-go in Burnett's top creative post, though he had been with the agency for nearly two decades when he got the job. Stoddart anointed Condon chief creative officer after long-time creative leader Cheryl Berman announced she was vacating the position in 2005. After taking control of what was then a 200-person creative department, Condon mostly dropped from sight, and the agency's creative output seemed to slump badly at times. Perhaps the agency reached it lowest ebb creatively when it was handed the Washington Mutual ad account and then unveiled an imbecilic campaign with stodgy bankers in a holding pen acting like total stooges.

Condon, of course, also presided over several downsizings of Burnett's creative unit, as the agency continued to lose accounts and Bernardin and Stoddart seemed clueless about how to return the agency to its glory days. At least one source suggested Burnett had offered to keep Condon around to work on its Kellogg business -- the one client Condon seemed most interested in and the one with which he had perhaps the most success. But it appears Condon is gone for good.

Now the question becomes who will replace Condon and take on the herculean task of lifting Burnett out of a deep, dark hole. Word is the agency probably will look for a hotshot outside the shop who can bring some new energy and fresh perspective to Burnett and its problems. Burnett's Global Chief Creative Officer Mark Tutssel is likely to have a say in who that person is, though Tutssel hasn't been a major presence in Chicago for years now, and one wonders how much of a feel he has for what is happening at Burnett and for the management overhaul the place so desperately needs.

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Lewis Lazare has written the Media Mix column for the Chicago Sun-Times for the past seven and a half years.

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