THE KINGS OF MADISON AVENUE - Rick Fizdale, King of Chicago, actually, where Leo Burnett’s chief exec is on a mission to make up lost time. By Caroline Marshall

Rick Fizdale, the chairman and chief executive of the Leo Burnett Company, met Leo Burnett just three times. The first was the day he joined the agency as a copywriter, 2 January 1969. An unrepentant hippie with long, wild hair, he was wearing love beads, a bell round his ankle, a tie-dye T-shirt, torn jeans and sandals. His creative director, Norm Muse, rushed into his cubicle and ushered him down the corridor, explaining: ’Leo’s on the floor and you should meet him.’

Rick Fizdale, the chairman and chief executive of the Leo Burnett

Company, met Leo Burnett just three times. The first was the day he

joined the agency as a copywriter, 2 January 1969. An unrepentant hippie

with long, wild hair, he was wearing love beads, a bell round his ankle,

a tie-dye T-shirt, torn jeans and sandals. His creative director, Norm

Muse, rushed into his cubicle and ushered him down the corridor,

explaining: ’Leo’s on the floor and you should meet him.’

Leo had retired the year before. Almost 80 years old, short and slightly

slouched, he was wearing one of his freshly rumpled, blue pin-striped

suits with a trace of cigarette ash on the lapel. His legendary lower

lip, said to protrude farther and farther down his chin as his

disapproval mounted, was positively quivering. He spoke just four words

to his newest recruit: ’You better be good.’

He was. Fizdale spent ten years writing copy before assuming day-to-day

control of Chicago’s creative department in 1979. He became chief

creative officer for the global operation in 1987, moving to chairman,

chief executive and chief creative officer in 1992. A year later he

relinquished one of his three titles, that of chief executive. In 1997

he returned as chief executive and handed the chief creative officer

title to Michael Conrad.

It is a year and a half since he took on that second stint as chairman

and chief executive after the Burnetts’ board ousted the then chief

executive, William Lynch, and chief operating officer, James Jennes. The

pair were brought in to drive a cost-cutting campaign that many felt

placed too little emphasis on clients, contributing to a series of

painful client defections in 1997 - United Airlines globally, Miller

Lite and the McDonald’s domestic business. Rubbing salt into the wound,

a portion of each account went to the notably un-Burnetts-like and

irreverent Fallon McElligott agency, led by a driven ex-Burnetts man,

Pat Fallon.

Chugging on a stream of Marlboros and Cokes during the interview (both

are clients), Fizdale operates from the largest single ad agency in the

US. He’s the king of a dollars 5.98 billion, 84 full-service office

network spanning 75 markets. He plunges straight into his views on the

principal challenge facing the privately owned agency: ’It is important

for us to increase our multinational clients. Of the major networks, we

have the fewest.’

Advertising Age International’s most recent World Brands report, from

September 1997, finds that Burnetts has 20 such clients, while Grey has

95. On Burnetts’ list, the most significant are Procter & Gamble,

Kellogg and Philip Morris. All are in mature markets.

Burnetts must therefore expand outside its traditional fmcg base, into

high-growth areas such as technology, computers, healthcare and

financial services. This is asking a lot of an agency that enjoys - or

perhaps suffers - an historical reputation for producing ’apple pie’

advertising, the sort that British agencies still condescendingly

ascribe to the American market.

This stems from landmark campaigns by Burnetts featuring ’the critters’

- the Jolly Green Giant, Tony the Tiger and Snap, Crackle and Pop for

Kellogg, the Pillsbury Doughboy and so on. The Marlboro Man also

features in this roll-call of famous advertising properties. But the

reel enthusiastically shown in Chicago today also includes engaging and

sophisticated work for McDonald’s, Kraft Cracker Barrel, Kellogg, P&G,

John West, Japp and others.

Can Burnetts mine new client areas and expand its multinational client

base while maintaining its reputation for consumer branding?

Fizdale points to two purchases as proof that the process is already

underway. First, in March last year, he bought a majority interest in

Williams-Labardie, a medical agency based in Illinois. This has already

hooked in more than dollars 100 million in healthcare business from the

likes of Searle (global), Eli Lilly (multinational) and the national

client, Nature Made Vitamins.

Second, he recently bought TFA Communications, a fellow Chicago-based

agency with 1997 billings of more than dollars 68 million which

specialises in the high-tech business-to-business area. Now known as

TFA/Leo Burnett Technology, last month’s deal - which was completed in

just six weeks - saw 50 TFA staffers move to the Burnetts building. ’We

want to establish general advertising relationships with some of TFA’s

clients and expand those into international relationships,’ says

Fizdale. In turn, TFA will marry Burnetts branding nous with its core

skills. Sean Bisceglia, TFA’s president, has promised: ’I’m going to

kick Anderson & Lembke’s ass.’

Outside consultants are also part of Burnetts’ rehabilitation: Larry

Light, an authority on building brands, has begun a series of seminars

at the agency; Red Spider, the strategic planning shop formed by Charlie

Robertson, has been briefed to upgrade the agency’s planning


Joe McCarthy, formerly the worldwide advertising director at Nike, has

been signed up as a consultant and helped win Fila against hot-shops

including Cliff Freeman and Burnetts’ nemesis, Fallon.

As for the Chicago head office, the reaction to the run of account

losses precipitated the most dramatic reorganisation in the agency’s


In December 1997, the same month that the agency bought 49 per cent of

Bartle Bogle Hegarty, Chicago reorganised into seven business units and,

with the acquisition of TFA, it established an eighth.

Roughly organised by product category, each unit pools creative, client

service, planning and production people and is empowered to find the

most efficient way to deliver what Leo Burnett dubbed ’superior


In other words, creative that builds a quality reputation for the long

haul at the same time as building sales in the present.

The process was modelled on Burnetts in Bangkok, which was the first

office to adopt the mini-agency system. London has also implemented a

brand team structure. Fizdale says a big motivator was frustration: ’I

saw wonderful briefs with laser-like strategies not being executed by a

creative department which would dig in its heels.’

There were other reasons: ’To get people closer to clients, to get

people to sit cross-functionally so things would happen faster. We

wanted each of the mini-agencies to develop process changes so work

would get approved faster.’

The process of decentralisation brought some surprises. ’The one that I

thought would happen last was making the ads better. And the one that I

thought would happen first was that people, through working next to each

other, would invent new processes.

’What was astonishing was the speed at which the ads have started to get

better across almost every business unit. The single greatest benefit,

according to our people, is that they love working next to each other,

but the process changes that I thought would come quickly are lagging

behind,’ he says.

Such candour is typical of Fizdale, a native Chicagoan (and therefore a

Bulls fanatic) with a creative sensibility that sets him apart from his

some of his peers at the profit-driven powerhouses of Omnicom and


It’s not that he misses doing the work, for he admits that creative

skills are ’an almost atrophied part of my job description’. But he

argues convincingly that securing the long-term future of the company is

’a more creative and important endeavour’.

Fizdale grew up in a working-class neighbourhood in Chicago. He attended

several universities, leaving without a degree but with the conviction

that college was a mostly useless experience. Having returned to Chicago

to look for a job, the classified pages yielded one possibility as an

office boy at the Chicago Sun-Times. It turned out the vacancy had

already been filled but he was invited to take the test that they gave

all applicants.

One record test score later, and he had secured a position as assistant

to the office boy. That led to a job with one of the tiniest agencies in

Chicago and, after a few years, he joined BBDO Chicago. When BBDO closed

the office three months later, he moved to Burnetts where his first

assignment was to find new uses for Vicks VapoRub. He rose to power

thanks to his pivotal role on Philip Morris.

Over the past year, Fizdale and his inner circle of Roger Haupt (a Brit,

vice- chairman and chief administrative officer) and Jim Oates

(president) have hit the headlines by pulling off the BBH deal and

plunging Burnetts into rehab.

Observers identify Haupt as Fizdale’s key advisor: ’There’s no-one I’ve

collaborated better with in my career,’ Fizdale agrees. ’Roger is a

linear thinker as you’d expect from an accountant, and my thoughts range

all over the lot. I’m more likely to major in imagination and Roger in

the practical things that are required to make things happen.’

Fizdale’s assessment of his management style reflects this and he is

amused and a little bemused to learn that he is described as ’enigmatic’

by a senior Burnetts insider: ’I don’t think I have a management style,’

he says. ’I lead but I don’t manage. My job is working with others to

find the right direction to take the company, to lead the process of

defining and implementing it.’

Strange talk, perhaps, for a man who led a bloody boardroom revolt and

set about a sweeping reorganisation with such gusto. Didn’t he have to

manage when he fired Lynch and Jenness? ’A little bit,’ he agrees,

shifting uncomfortably in his chair.

Fizdale offers three reasons for the BBH deal. ’First, BBH is pursuing a

different approach to globalisation than us. We have offices in every

country where our clients do business. BBH plans to open centres of

excellence, perhaps as few as one per region. I strongly suspect that

many of our clients will progressively centralise marketing in a handful

of locations. As they do, we can learn from BBH and embark on the

selected centralisation of Burnetts.

’Second, because BBH will not have offices in anywhere near the number

of places as Burnetts, we are well positioned to handle media for them

and their clients through Starcom.’ (Burnetts spun off its media into

this separate media subsidiary, formerly known as Leo Burnett Media, in


’Third, we own 49 per cent of BBH’s profits and we will never have to

operate their brand. This is a perfect win:win scenario. They got a

sizeable infusion of capital upfront. We receive nearly half their

earnings forever.’

There was also talk of reflected ’creative lustre’. But Fizdale now

refutes this: ’We didn’t buy into one of the world’s greatest agencies

so that their creative lustre could reflect on us. In our internal

discussions the subject never came up. It’s the idle chatter of


And so to Fizdale’s mission to create a media powerhouse with the

MacManus Group. This union would have formi-dable credentials on both

sides of the Atlantic, thanks to P&G, a powerful shared client.

The two agencies have P&G business in a number of markets, most

crucially in the US, where MacManus’s TeleVest handles P&G’s dollars 1.2

billion TV buying account - the single-biggest US media account - and

Burnetts handles press planning and buying. Now that P&G is reviewing

its pounds 207 million media business in the UK, there is a catalyst for

the swift conclusion of negotiations, although no formal announcement is

expected until the end of the year.

Fizdale disagrees with the suggestion that Burnetts and MacManus have

been slow in getting their media act together: ’I don’t think that,

because of leaks in the trade press, you can argue we’re only just

getting our act together,’ he says.

In fact, Burnetts and MacManus found each other almost ten years ago

within the buying shop, Equmedia, which was set up to pool buying clout

with Grey and Young & Rubicam. But it was more of a loose confederation

than a classic merger. And it soon encountered conflicts (P&G was with

three of the players while Y&R had Colgate; General Motors was with two

while Y&R had Ford).

And so to the most delicate question of all. Is Burnetts an advertising

dinosaur obsessed by the dictats of a founder who took his last breath

almost 30 years ago?

If it was in danger of that, it is certainly in the process of putting

its house in order. After selling the majority stake in its 50-storey

skyscraper in Chicago for dollars 217 million in 1997, there is ample

cash that will allow Burnetts to stay private and growth-oriented. An

intriguing alliance with a global management consulting firm is on the

cards, and money has been earmarked to expand existing consultancy and

direct interests into more competitive branded operations. And Jeff

Fergus - who headed Burnetts’ Asia Pacific operations for three years -

is now running the company’s European operation, applying what he has

learned in the East, where Burnetts is ranked highly, to Europe, where

it is not.

Too little, too late? After all, Burnetts’ competitors have been active

in the media, diversification and acquisitions game for longer. How deep

is the damage done to Burnetts by its tardiness?

’Any damage that has been done is certainly not irreparable. If we

thought that, the only option would be to sell the company,’ concludes

Fizdale, in a tone that is anything but enigmatic. ’And that’s not going

to happen.’


Before commenting please read our rules for commenting on articles.

If you see a comment you find offensive, you can flag it as inappropriate. In the top right-hand corner of an individual comment, you will see 'flag as inappropriate'. Clicking this prompts us to review the comment. For further information see our rules for commenting on articles.

comments powered by Disqus