CLOSE-UP: NEWSMAKERS - JIM THORNTON AND PAUL SHEARER. Can new duo breathe fresh life into Burnett's reel?

Leo Burnett's management team is in place. It's time to do the work. Recruiting executive creative directors should be an absolute doddle. Forget internal promotions. Forget risky overseas appointments. Just find the hottest home-grown talents available, and give them the job. Simple.

This week, Leo Burnett put this theory into practice, appointing Jim Thornton from Mother and Paul Shearer from Wieden & Kennedy Amsterdam.

The two will replace the J. Walter Thompson-bound Nick Bell, who quit in February.

The appointments are something of a coup for Burnett. More importantly, they have created a positive buzz around an agency that has experienced more than its fair share of upheaval over the past year.

Since the chief executive, Bruce Haines, took over from Stephen Whyte last spring, the agency has been both bought by the Publicis Groupe and merged with D'Arcy. The former D'Arcy managing director, Barry Cook, is now the chairman of the merged agency, while Burnett's managing director, Kate Howe, has left. And if that weren't enough, Burnett will soon be moving offices.

One wonders why Shearer and Thornton would want to step into an arena as political as this.

"Sometimes, big agencies can feel too clogged up," Shearer concedes.

"There are too many people talking at once, and you can wait forever for a chance to speak that never arrives. But I don't feel that it's like that at Burnett. I think Bruce and Barry have cleared the way."

"Plus, you can't underestimate the job Nick has done over the past few years," Thornton adds. "It's good that we have something to build on, and that we don't have to start from scratch."

While there's no doubt that Bell's department has produced work of an enviable quality including John West "bear" and its Heinz Salad Cream work, there is a feeling that recently the standard has slipped.

Haines describes this assessment as fair. But he and Cook both believe that working on a client list that includes McDonald's, Procter & Gamble and Fiat will bring the best out of Shearer and Thornton.

Haines is also adamant that the two will not be asked to pick up awards for a couple of bijou accounts at the expense of the agency's bigger clients.

"I believe that you should do your best work for your pukka, core, fee-paying clients," he explains. "I want Leo Burnett to do great work, but I want it to be great work that people will see. Agencies such as Mother are a real threat, and we don't intend to just sit there and be rolled over."

Of course, the appointment is not without risk. Shearer and Thornton are not a creative team, nor have they ever worked together, despite a couple of close calls.

However, they are good friends. And the prospect of occasionally teaming up was part of their reason for taking the job.

Whether Shearer and Thornton will be a success will depend not only on how they function as creative heads, but also on whether they appeal to would-be clients.

"There has been a problem generating new business at Leo Burnett," Shearer explains. "Questions have got to be asked about that."

What are their immediate plans for the creative department? "Well, we're certainly not looking to fire anyone," Shearer says.

"But our way of working will be new and, therefore, not everyone will be comfortable with it. This will mean we lose some people, naturally. I've worked with a lot of European creatives and I'd love to get that mix into Leo Burnett."

Despite having worked at six different agencies (including Bartle Bogle Hegarty and Euro RSCG Wnek Gosper) since 1988, Shearer says that W&K is the first agency he's ever truly been happy at. His description of it as an outfit free of politics and ego is exemplified by the fact that it has been known to keep its awards in boxes that then gather dust.

During his time at W&K, he has had the opportunity to work with Nike, a client as big and global as any that could be found on the Burnett client list.

Thornton has also dealt with his share of multinationals, first at TBWA/GGT London and latterly with Mother. He feels that many people wrongly believe that Mother only works on small accounts, pointing out that, in his time there, he has dealt with the likes of Orange and Diageo, as well as ITV Digital, COI Communications and Typhoo.

Thornton claims that he is as surprised as anyone that he is leaving the agency. However, he claims that the decision has everything to do with the opportunity the Burnett job presented, and very little to do with the fact that if he'd stayed put he would always be likely to play second fiddle to Robert Saville and Mark Waites.

"I loved working there," he adds. "When I started, I couldn't imagine ever leaving. But opportunities like this one don't come along very often."

With Thornton and Shearer on board, Burnett now boasts a complete senior management team, which includes Haines, Cook and the planning director, John Poorta.

While Cook acknowledges that either of his two new appointments could do the job on their own, he believes that Burnett's creative department, post-merger, is big enough to justify having two heads.

Their immediate priority will be to recapture the form that saw Burnett win a box worth of awards in 2001 and, in doing so, bolt clients such as McDonald's to the floor of Kensington Village.

Shearer adds: "In a year's time, I expect there to be a certain amount of change. I hope we've won a lot of new business for a start. I also want to get to the point where clients view us as friends and feel they can ring us up at any time."

Thornton's ambition is slightly more realistic. "My aim is to not get fired," he jokes.

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