Leo Burnett, Effective Advertising From Chicago

Leo Burnett is the name of a world wide advertising agency. It was started by him in August 1935. There was him and a staff of eight, and they were based in the lobby of Chicago’s Palmer House Hotel. His staff were seated round a card table.

It was a remarkable decision because Burnett was already in his forties and had never been in business on his own account previously.

Leo Burnett founded a style of advertising that came to be known as the Chicago School. David Ogilvy claims that the only other agency outside of Chicago to understand the School was Ogilvy and Mather.

The Chicago School identifies with the American Mid-West. It saw the cowboy as symbolic of American values. Indeed it was the Burnett Agency who put together the iconic Marlborough Man, a series of advertisements that both established the brand, and ran in various forms for 25 years.

Burnett was well qualified to run an agency, having trained in journalism and been a copy-chief for ten years, as well as previously working in the advertising department of Cadillac.

As he got older, Burnett got better and better. Why was this so?

Quite simply he as passionate about advertising as my daughter is about riding horses. The whole business, the words, the graphics, the concepts, the clients, and the results, engaged him fully.

In terms of the creative process he is remembered for saying these three things:

  1. ‘There is an inerrant drama in every product. Our No. 1 job is to dig for it and capitalize on it.’
  2. ‘When you reach for the stars, you may not quite get one, but you won’t come up with a handful of mud either.’
  3.  ‘Steep yourself in your subject, work like hell, and love honor and obey your hunches.’

Leo Burnett stated:

“During the 36 years I have been in the agency business I have always been naively guided by the principle that if we do not believe in the products we advertise strongly enough to use them ourselves, we are not completely honest with ourselves in advertising them to others.”


Some may criticize Burnett and his agency for being associated with advertising smoking for so long after the effects of smoking on health came into medical knowledge. Burnett was a smoker who came from a different generation to advertisers of today. His legacy remains with the company he started. Like Ogilvy and Mather, Leo Burnett, (the contemporary agency), use his signature as their logo. In doing so they are standing behind his belief in simple, sometimes vernacular, language with homely archetypal graphics.

The mission of today’s Leo Burnett agency is:

‘To be the world’s best creator of ideas that truly move people . . . bar none.

Together with our partners we strive to put a meaningful purpose at the center of our clients’ brands, to transform the way people think, feel and ultimately behave.’

It might well be the stated aspiration of a great artist, rather than the founder of an advertising agency.

When Leo Burnett died at aged 80 his agency was twentieth largest in size across the world. Today it is number eleven, and number eight in the U.S.A. The headquarters remains in Chicago.

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