Michael Conrad has what it takes to head the jury at Cannes, Emma Hall
Let’s get the introductions out of the way. Michael Conrad is the
chairman of the Cannes jury this year and the deputy chief creative
officer of Leo Burnett Worldwide.
Being a German is no passport to global advertising acclaim, which may
explain why Conrad is little-known in the UK, even though he clearly has
the pedigree for top international jobs.
Those who do know him respect his creative ability and leadership
qualities, and his assessment of his duties at Cannes betrays a pre-
occupation with both. He says his responsibilities are: ‘To build an
effective team of judges and to search out the ‘fresh’ ideas from among
Fresh ideas, Conrad insists, are the lifeblood of the industry: ‘In each
category, the judges will be looking for breakthrough work that portrays
a brand in a fresh, new way.’
The choice of Conrad suggests that Cannes’ organisers are looking for a
certain freshness this year too. After the controversy of last year’s
awards under the chairmanship of Frank Lowe, when a rowdy ceremony was
finished off by the judges’ failure to present a Gold Lion, who could
blame the organisers looking for a new approach from the chairman.
Gerard Stamp, the creative director of Burnetts in London, supports the
organisers’ choice. ‘Conrad has a lot of experience in chairing
committees. He does it very well and fairly and will make sure that
everyone gets a say.
In my experience, if people don’t speak in meetings, he will seek out
their opinions,’ Stamp comments.
Conrad thinks that being neither English nor American helped him to get
the post. A continental European perspective, he asserts, will add a new
dimension to the proceedings.
He also has a solid international background and travels frequently
around the world. ‘My experience goes beyond most people’s.
I have been working with creative directors in 60 different countries
for the past ten years, and I know all the different cultures,’ Conrad
As a worldwide creative co-ordinator and troubleshooter for the Burnetts
network, he travels the world to keep up-to-date with creative standards
and the activities of his colleagues.
Conrad founded and heads Burnetts’ global product committee, which is a
rather grandiose moniker for a group of people who get together every
four months to watch the entire creative output of Burnetts’ 71 offices
At the end of each quarterly viewing, Conrad writes to all of the
network’s creative directors to pass on his comments.
Conrad’s creative reputation in Germany is unsurpassed. Jochen Rang, the
chief executive of the Campus network and a fellow German, says: ‘Conrad
is the best copywriter we’ve ever had in our country. Germany is never a
front-runner in the advertising world and Conrad is one of the few
Germans who has made a truly international career in the business.’
Conrad got into advertising by accident. He needed a job and gave a
friend a movie script he had written. The friend perceptively picked up
on Conrad’s talent and fixed him up with an interview at Young and
Rubicam, where he was instantly hired as a copywriter.
After a hesitant start, Conrad’s career rapidly took off. He moved to
Ogilvy and Mather and then, in 1972, started his own agency with fellow
copywriter, Walter Lurzer. The Lurzer Conrad agency had only been going
for three months when the nascent TBWA network persuaded it to become
its partner in Germany.
Two years later, the duo broke away to set up their own shop again,
which created prominent work for major clients such as Braun and Fiat.
Conrad says that by 1979 the agency had the best creative profile in the
country and was showing tremendous growth and momentum. The only thing
that was missing was the international dimension clients demanded. So
the agency merged with Burnetts that year. Six years later, Conrad was
called to the network’s head office in Chicago to become the
international creative director.
Although Conrad is proud of his achievements in Germany, he puts some of
his success down to timing: ‘The recession in the 70s was the best thing
for us, because it meant we could break into the system and get business
from the big established agencies, even when accounts were
internationally aligned.’ In the end, though, Conrad and Lurzer realised
that for the business to achieve its full potential they needed to
create an international agency.
The resulting Burnetts link-up has worked well for Conrad, and he still
loves advertising. ‘It is a sexy business - I like creating things,
setting goals and motivating people. It is a big organisation and we are
making progress, although it is sometimes slower than I’d like.’
Conrad, now 52, is happily settled in his Chicago home, which he shares
with his wife, Helga, and their three children. When he isn’t working,
he plays tennis, enjoys the opera and is an active member of the board
of governors at the Art Institute of Chicago - a role that continues to
provide him with creative inspiration.
He says he likes Chicago because: ‘It is an exciting place, with
inspiring architecture and music, and a wonderful lake. The agency is
warm and friendly - everyone is a foreigner and we all live together.’
The US was a role model for Conrad when he started out in advertising.
‘It is a place of 1,001 icons - a country that believes in advertising,
where people are inspired by bold ideas,’ he says.
In the streets of Soho, a German who lives in Chicago does not
automatically command respect, but Conrad has a sense of humour and
could never be accused of taking himself too seriously. On one occasion,
when Stamp was attending one of Conrad’s committee meetings in Ireland,
at the end of the day’s business and after a few drinks, Stamp wandered
over to a piano and struck up a tune. Conrad leapt in with a guitar and
demonstrated his talent as a country and western musician.
Philip Morris is one of the two pieces of business with which Conrad is
most closely associated (the other is Procter and Gamble) and, by all
accounts, he has a number of the characteristics of the Marlboro Man.
He smokes Marlboro cigarettes constantly and has the tall, strong,
tanned presence of an advertising icon. This leaning towards Americana
is reflected in his advertising tastes, and his creative preferences can
veer towards the schmaltzy. For instance, Conrad’s favourite campaign
from Burnetts in London is the ‘birds and the bees’ series for
Rang is full of praise for Conrad’s influence across the Burnetts
network: ‘He has a reputation for creating advertising that is always
good, even if it’s not spectacular. The agency doesn’t produce dogs, and
he wouldn’t be happy with one or two outstanding campaigns if the rest
were rubbish - he strives for consistency.’
Mike Cozens, the creative director of Y&R and one of this year’s Cannes
jurors, reveals that Conrad is highly thought of throughout Y&R -
Burnetts’ arch-rival in the US. ‘There is the utmost respect for Conrad
in every country,’ Cozens says.
But Conrad admits he still has work to do. He is particularly pleased
with the progress made by the network’s Oslo and Bangkok agencies and,
although he is happy with the London team, he admits the agency still
lacks a ‘UK campaign that everyone talks about’. He continues: ‘It would
put the agency in better shape, and then its other work would be seen
It doesn’t look as if Conrad will run out of enthusiasm in the pursuit
of his goals. Stamp praises his ‘fantastic, boundless, infectious
Conrad is as committed as ever to advertising. ‘I couldn’t think of a
more interesting business,’ he muses, ‘and, anyway, I wouldn’t know what
else to do.’