Jonathan Burley is the sort of outsider talent the ad industry desperately needs
A view from Jeremy Lee

Jonathan Burley is the sort of outsider talent the ad industry desperately needs

CHI & Partners' outgoing chief creative is remaining tight-lipped about his next move, writes Jeremy Lee.

If you’ve read anything that Jonathan Burley has written in the pages of Campaign, particularly on the Cannes International Festival of Creativity (of which there’s an instalment later this month) or Private View, you’ll know that CHI & Partners’ outgoing chief creative officer is funny – that’s funny haha not funny peculiar.

Advertising is, of course, blessed – thank God – with more than its fair share of people who are borderline geniuses, but some of them are troubled or awkward souls who sometimes shoulder their burden heavily.

Not Burley, however. He wears his own brand of genius remarkably and deceptively lightly, and this levity can sometimes be misleading. He both understands and cares deeply about the power of creativity and the advertising industry, while giving the impression that he also finds some elements of the business slightly absurd. A healthy balance.

A boy from a council estate in Portsmouth, he sums up his educational achievements on LinkedIn as "unsurprisingly little". An early career as a clerk at the Inland Revenue foundered when, having found himself having more sympathy with the people he’d been entrusted to extract money from by the state than the state itself, he was sacked.

He’s a proud outsider and true character, almost as famous for his expensive but slightly misjudged set of Dick Emery-style teeth (crueller elements liken him to Mister Ed), constant chugging on a fag – he’s often to be seen filling the gutters of Rathbone Place with dog ends – and dirty laugh as he is for his brilliant creativity, but there’s substance behind his distinctive style.

Burley could easily have been a comedy writer or an author or a playwright or many other things (other than an HMRC clerk) in sectors that would have been grateful to make use of his talent. It was serendipitous for the advertising industry that we got him first.

Having worked at HHCL, Leo Burnett and CHI & Partners, his creative reel stretches from "House of cards" for Shelter (one of the Gunn Report’s most awarded ads) to "Trust" for McDonald’s (winner of one of the first Gold Creative Effectiveness Lions at Cannes) and more recently "Slide" for Lexus, which, if there is any justice, will also do well at the forthcoming festival that he does so well in lampooning.

In short Burley is exactly the sort of outsider talent that the advertising industry is desperately crying out for as it continues to writhe around uncomfortably in its inclusivity knickers while simultaneously achieving very little. But Burley doesn’t let this background define him.

Given this track record, his departure from CHI might seem a little surprising, then, particularly as the agency is gearing up to participate in the closed WPP pitch for Marks & Spencer against its sickly half-sister agency Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R.

Nonetheless six years is a fair stint and the split seems amicable and mutually agreed enough – who really knows if he jumped or was pushed, HMRC-style?

He also leaves the CHI creative department in a healthy enough state (although quite how long the deputy executive creative director Jim Bolton, who tends to follow Burley from job to job, remains in place is open to question) having broken up the traditional creative team format in order to make the department more fluid and freer, even if its new business record remains a work in progress.

Burley is remaining tight-lipped about his next move as contracts are finalised, but wherever he ships up it can’t be soon enough. As well as being a proven talent, he adds some welcome hue to the industry. As for his replacement at CHI, maybe it’s an opportunity for the agency to reboot – even if the boots he or she fills are remarkably sizeable ones.