So you run a London agency which suffers from the perception that
it is a satellite operation under the control of its American
Your new-media reputation, in particular, has struggled to break out of
this stereotype. What do you do about it?
Hiring an American to run the new-media department wouldn’t be top of
most people’s lists. So why has Leo Burnett gone down this route?
Because Bant Breen isn’t your stereotypical American. The son of a
travelling University professor - who named his son after his own
grandfather, a self-made American who made a fortune raising bantam
roosters - the boy Breen followed his father from one college to the
next across the US, and also made it to Berlin and Oxford. He caught the
academic bug, studying history at university in North Carolina, but
managed to spend a year of his studies in Italy, before landing a
scholarship to do a two-year MA at Trinity College, Cambridge.
He then spent a further two years working in the UK before moving to
Hong Kong, from where he has returned after a 12-month spell.
’He’s one of the nicest, most humourous Americans you’ll ever meet,’
says one business colleague. ’He actually understands irony.’ The
speaker is Keld van Schreven, the creative director of Hard Reality, the
new-media production company with which Breen has worked on more than
The pair met when Breen was in the second year of the prestigious,
three-year WPP Fellowship - which he began shortly after leaving
After spending the first year with WPP’s design company, Sampson
Tyrrell, Breen had moved to the Network (now MindShare). In some
people’s eyes, he may have been a graduate trainee, but in the small
digital team of three to which he was assigned, there was no place for a
rookie. ’I was thrown in head first,’ says Breen, who worked on Ford,
Huggies, American Express, Guinness and a major, integrated
communications project for Unilever in his time at the Network, as well
as the Network’s own acclaimed site, Green Blob, and the award-winning
CampaignLive. Hard Reality produced the last two.
Van Schreven adds: ’He rolled up his sleeves when others went off to
lunch. He stayed late. He’s a perfectionist.’
Which was music to the ears of Burnetts chief executive, Nick Brien, who
was having difficulty finding the right digital brain for his
’I’d searched extensively in the UK for someone with a broader strategic
understanding of digital. Not just someone who could build a
He was a powerful candidate,’ Brien says.
Breen had completed his final year of the Fellowship in Hong Kong and
was offered the job of running MindShare’s interactive division in
South-east Asia. But he wanted to return to London.
’Burnetts is at a point where a lot of exciting change is happening,’
declares Breen. ’There’s a real desire to be a winning company.’
Of course, it isn’t just a desire. In the past month, Burnetts has
picked up two big pieces of business: the pounds 170 million Procter &
Gamble UK media centralisation and the pounds 60 million global branding
task for Heinz tomato ketchup. Breen worked on both pitches.
Not a bad start. And not a bad time to know Breen - which is where van
Schreven enters the story again. Hard Reality worked with Burnetts on
the Heinz pitch. Expect future collaborations.
But it wasn’t just Breen’s WPP experience that convinced Brien he was
the right man. Ever the self-starter - he set up his own agency when he
was 16 - Breen founded a film and television society in Cambridge and
became involved with Cambridge Cable’s pioneering interactive TV
Breen’s brief at Burnetts is a broad one. Working with Brien, he will
develop digital communications as a department in its own right,
offering ’the best strategic advice as well as the best execution’. But
he will also have an internal role - to make sure the agency, in all its
parts, makes the most of interactive opportunities.
His focus won’t just be in London. When we speak he has only been in the
job 12 days, but has already been over to the Burnetts HQ in the US to
discuss global strategy.
It will be the first of many such trips - and he is by no means unhappy
at the prospect.
For all his wanderings, Breen has not forgotten his place of birth -
Chicago, which also happens to be the headquarters of the Leo Burnett
company. Burnetts was the first agency Breen came across when he
interned at a law firm in the windy city.
Less an American than a mid-Atlantic drifter, Breen is at his happiest
flitting between Britain and the US. ’My personality is floating in the
Atlantic somewhere. This is a nice fit.’
THE BREEN FILE
1998: Leo Burnett, digital communications director
1995: WPP, fellowship involving one year as a brand consultant at
Sampson Tyrrell, one year as digital communications consultant at the
Network and a final year working across several disciplines at Ogilvy &
Mather in Hong Kong
1993: Trinity College, Cambridge, MA in History