MEDIA: LEO BURNETT BRANDING - AN EXPERT'S VIEW. Leo Burnett's new image takes us back to the heady days of the 80s, Michael Johnson reckons

When the jpeg opened up on my screen I quite seriously thought that I'd been inadvertently caught in a graphic-design time warp.

There it was, Picasso-esque, hands, a face staring upwards, the obligatory stars. I felt as though I had rewound 15 years and was doing a bank brochure. Maybe a wine bar. But, no, it's for an advertising agency. The design is (and I'm quoting from the press release) "a metaphor for an agency committed to creating ideas that inspire enduring belief in our clients' brands". Someone get Pseud's Corner on the phone, quick.

To be fair to Leo Burnett, the agency was attempting some sort of clean up of a design style that seemed to encompass an old hand-and-stars device and the obligatory "signature of the founder". Yes, it was a design-dogs-dinner before and, yes, some semblance of order has been reached - albeit two decades later than the rest of the world suffered from this particular design tic. But, no, it will not win any prizes, sorry.

What it illustrates is just how darned difficult symbolising ad agencies has become. Anything that seems even remotely "now" will by definition become "then". In a business that prides itself on knowing all about the future and leaves the present to others, anything that smacks of the past could be very troublesome indeed.

And there are only so many times the "signature of the founder" route will play. When I go to Ogilvy's, I think of that bit in his book that suggests you too could own a French chateau and I'm left feeling slightly queasy (perhaps I can see him signing cheques to the builder?). Even the "classic bit of type" can feel from a different era - as Saatchi & Saatchi can testify, Gaudi caps looked somehow classic (yet somehow modern), once.

It's easy to stand on this side of the fence and lob design grenades, and I'll admit that design companies are just as bad at deciding on their own identities. Most will try to sit just on the right side of "modern yet classic"; few will have the exuberance, balls or budget to say: "OK this letterhead will go out of date but when it does we'll change it."

I think the argument that always wins for me is that the last thing a creative agency's identity should do is fight with the creative work it's doing for a client. If your own letterhead is more interesting than the work you're presenting, well that really is a worry.

So where does that leave us then? Well, I was in a meeting recently where a client tried to insist on his logo being set in one of the typefaces on his PCs, arguing that "at least everything would be consistent". So that's Times, Ariel or, er, Palatino? Mmmm, now I'm sure I've got a hand-and-stars route knocking about somewhere ...


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