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
His creative director, Norm Muse, rushed into his cubicle and ushered
him down the corridor, explaining: 'Leo's on the floor and you should
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,
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.'
Burnetts has 20 such clients, while Grey has 95. On Burnetts' list, the
most significant are Procter & Gamble, Kellogg and Philip Morris.
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 cattily ascribe to the
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
advertising'. 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. 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. 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
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. 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 boardroom revolt and set
about a sweeping reorganisation with gusto. Didn't he have to manage
when he fired Lynch and Jenness? 'A 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 win:win scenario. They got an infusion of
capital. 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 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 confederation than a
merger. And it soon encountered conflicts (P&G was with three of the
players while Y&R had Colgate).
And so to the most delicate question. 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
alliance with a global management consulting firm is on the cards, and
money has been earmarked to expand 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
- This interview appeared in August 1998. In 2000, Fizdale was part of
the team that merged the Leo Group with the MacManus Group to form
Bcom3. Fizdale is now a vice-chairman of Bcom3, Roger Haupt is its CEO.