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Ad agencies are supposed to be all about generating buzz. But there hasn't been much of it -- as yet --about one big birthday being celebrated this year in the Chicago ad community.

We're talking about the 75th anniversary of the founding of Leo Burnett. It's a significant milestone for an agency that for many years represented the essence of what might be called the Chicago school of advertising. That particular style isn't as front of mind now as it was 20 or 30 years ago. But the heartwarming advertising that had wonderful storytelling at its core was for a long while synonymous with brands such as Hallmark cards and McDonald's that have been at Burnett for decades.

A good chunk of Burnett's 75th anniversary year already has passed, but one thing the agency is doing to mark its birthday is the publication of a new book called "HumanKind," a 250-page-plus summation in words and images of everything the agency has learned about brand building in its three-quarters of a century in business. The two authors listed on the cover are Burnett Worldwide CEO Tom Bernardin and Burnett Worldwide chief creative officer Mark Tutssel. But sources say Dan Santow, a PR executive with Edelman/Chicago, was the ghostwriter of much -- if not all -- of the text.

We'll save a fuller review of the book for closer to the official Oct. 2 publication date, but suffice it to say the book looks to be an elaborate attempt to repackage the basic tenets of advertising in terms more in sync with the way the business is perceived in this digital world. Bernardin and Tutssel still contend that advertising at heart is about communication, it's just that the way the communication manifests itself has changed.

Many will see "HumanKind" and contend it is a coffee table tome in the same vein as Saatchi & Saatchi honcho Kevin Roberts' recent "Lovemarks" book about evolved branding. The two books certainly have a similar, very visual design, and both have the same publisher, Brooklyn-based PowerHouse.

No doubt Burnett executives would have preferred that this 75th anniversary fall on a year when the flagship Chicago office could boast of huge account wins and a major sense of momentum. The year 2010 isn't over yet, but so far it has been another quiet one for the agency in terms of new business.

While there have been some encouraging signs at Burnett of a return to advertising that celebrates strong storytelling, especially for McDonald's, the agency's creative output still can be frustratingly uneven.

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.

It very well may go down in journalism annals as one of the most pathetic efforts at damage control ever. We're talking, of course, about Leo Burnett Worldwide CEO Tom Bernardin's chat with trade magazine Advertising Age on the occasion of his fifth anniversary at the agency. Rich Stoddart, Bernardin's minion in charge of the flagship Chicago office, participated too, ostensibly serving as chief cheerleader.

Much was made in the interview of Bernardin's having set up a global management team at Burnett, but management of any sort, sadly, seems to be the very weakest link in Bernardin's skill set, whatever that may be. We need only point out the period of time not that long ago when Bernardin brought in Juan Carlos Ortiz from Burnett's Latin American operations and set him up as co-leader at Burnett's Chicago office. As ill-advised as that co-leadership scheme was to begin with, Bernardin took it one step further and actually put Ortiz and Stoddart together at desks in the same office. It was a laughable scenario that couldn't -- and didn't -- last long. Needless to say, Bernardin failed to mention that development when he was talking with Ad Age about his dubious managerial achievements at Burnett.

Bernardin and Stoddart can try with all their might to spin their way out of a bad situation at Burnett. But the most recent round of at least 75 layoffs at Burnett and the costly settlement of --and ugly fallout from -- a lawsuit alleging the agency overbilled the United States Army are still fresh in our mind. Bernardin and Stoddart should be confronting the grim realities of where Burnett finds itself at the start of 2009. Instead they're trying to proclaim themselves heroes. It's a travesty.

X00240_9.JPGHardly unexpected. But very ugly. Late Wednesday, Leo Burnett/Chicago axed at least 75 staffers Wednesday, or about four percent of the workforce. Some put the number as high as 100.

A statement issued by the agency late Wednesday said the layoffs were part of an effort "to better position Leo Burnett USA to thrive during a time of accelerating change in our industry." Exactly the sort of drivel we would expect from an agency that has hardly been thriving during an extended period of gross mismanagement. That statement was accompanied by a memo to employees from Burnett President Rich Stoddart, who said the agency would continue to "invest in programs and resources to make this a place where creativity continues to flourish, our talent can continue to thrive." Even, we suppose, as depression grips those left to pick up the pieces.

The bloodbath comes in the wake of the embarrassing and crippling news that the agency had allegedly overbilled the United States Army during the time the huge account was at Burnett from 2000 to at least 2004. The agency chose to settle the case with the U.S. government to the tune of more than $15 million rather than litigate. Burnett also has been unable to haul in any substantial pieces of new business for a long time-- another troubling concern that has led to the perception the agency is in a downward spiral from which it cannot escape.

The massive number of layoffs Wednesday were believed to have affected numerous departments, but the creative department was said to have been hit especially hard. Burnett Worldwide CEO Tom Bernardin and Rich Stoddart, his top cop at Leo Burnett/Chicago, apparently weren't part of the purge.

But if Maurice Levy, the head of Burnett parent Publicis Groupe, hopes to turn around Burnett before it's too late, he finally will have to address the matter of Burnett's top management, who have abysmally failed what was at one time one of America's most legendary and respected ad agencies. But no longer can that be said to be the case.



About the blogger

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

About this Archive

This page is an archive of recent entries in the Tom Bernardin category.

Timothy Scott is the previous category.

Tom Dick & Harry Advertising/Chicago is the next category.

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