Leo Burnett Still Wins Ad Agency New Business 40 Years After His Death

Leo Burnett is one of the most enduring ad industry legends. He broke all the rules. Even after 40 years since his death he is still winning new business for his agency.

“The Burnett agency has accomplished something that has eluded so many other businesses: It has managed to keep the spirit and drive of its founder alive and well almost two decades after the founder himself passed on. Rita Koselka of Forbes

To celebrate Leo Burnett Worldwide’s 75th anniversary, Lobo, an animation and design studio, produced this animated spot. It is based on a speech given by Mr. Burnett announcing his retirement and leaving his staff with enduring principles for creating the fifth largest ad agency in the world.

The original film of Mr. Burnett’s speech is still required viewing for all new Burnett employees as part of their induction.

We chose to create a short film that looked straight from the 50s/60s, the modern age of cartoons, from the graphic style to the slightly worn, flickering picture quality, to the jazzy soundtrack. The main character is a cartoon version of Mr. Burnett himself, who goes through the situations described in the speech, teaching a lesson not only to the advertising world but to every creative activity.” Lobo

Leo Burnett “When to take my name off the door” from Lobo on Vimeo.

Time Magazine included Leo Burnett as one of the most influential people of the 20th century creating some of America’s most memorable ads and advertising icons such as the Jolly Green Giant, Pillsbury Doughboy, Charlie the Tuna, The Marlboro Man, and Tony the Tiger.  His Chicago-based ad agency became the 10th largest agency in the world and was one of the few not headquartered in New York City.

“Almost 40 years after the founder’s death, rival agencies complain that Burnett’s can still swing a pitch by showing a 50-year-old film of the master himself explaining his advertising philosophy” adbrands.net

Burnett revolutionized the advertising industry by developing a creative approach called, ‘The Chicago School of Advertising” as described by American National Business Hall of Fame:

“Leo Burnett had the rare distinction of leaving behind a new approach to the creative side of the advertising business. Burnett had developed a creative approach that many termed ‘The Chicago School of Advertising” It stressed finding the inherent drama in the product and writing the ad out of the drama, rather than using mere cleverness.

Burnett felt that Chicago was the Midwest — the heart and soul of the nation. In addition, he felt that the down to earth, wide-eyed perspective of Midwesterners facilitated their ability to create ads that appealed to the majority of Americans. Thus using his rare ability to see and use the dramatic in products and the acceptable perspective of Midwesterners, Burnett’s philosophy and style spread throughout the advertising industry.”

When television became mainstream in the 1950s, Burnett’s agency boomed because of this visual philosophy. Burnett said that television, “is the strongest drug we’ve ever had to dish out.” 

When Burnett started his business in August 1935 he had one account and a staff of eight. The agency’s only client was a Minnesota canning company which had been a client at his old firm.

Burnett’s widow, Naomi, credited Leo’s hiring of Richard Heath as the turning point for the agency. Heath was responsible for new business. He promoted the agency and created opportunities for bigger accounts such as Campbell Soup, Kellogg, Pillsbury and Proctor & Gamble. As brilliant an ad man as Leo Burnett was, he still needed someone to sell the agency and create new business opportunities.

Here are a few of Leo Burnett’s memorable quotes:

  • Curiosity about life in all of its aspects, I think, is still the secret of great creative people.
  • When you reach for the stars you may not quite get one, but you won’t come up with a handful of mud either.
  • A good ad which is not run never produces sales.
  • Make it simple. Make it memorable. Make it inviting to look at. Make it fun to read.
  • I have learned to respect ideas, wherever they come from. Often they come from clients. Account executives often have big creative ideas, regardless of what some writers think.
  • I have learned that you can’t have good advertising without a good client, that you can’t keep a good client without good advertising, and no client will ever buy better advertising than he understands or has an appetite for.
  • I have learned that any fool can write a bad ad, but that it takes a real genius to keep his hands off a good one.
  • Good advertising does not just circulate information. It penetrates the public mind with desires and belief.
  • What helps people, helps business.
About Michael Gass

Consultant | Trainer | Author | Speaker

Since 2007, he has been pioneering the use of social media, inbound and content marketing strategies specifically for agency new business.

He is the founder of Fuel Lines Business Development, LLC, a firm which provides business development training and consulting services to advertising, digital, media and PR agencies.


  1. Great animation, but get rid of (or lower the volume on) the sound track. It competes with Leo’s words which should be revered. Nicely done.

  2. Great article! Really enjoyed it.
    James Corey Luehrs

  3. Thanks James!


  1. […] paid off thanks to his leadership and approach to advertising, which became known as the “Chicago school of advertising.” As Stewart Ewen explains in his 1998 article on […]

%d bloggers like this: