The Networkers: Linda Wolf, chief executive of Leo Burnett Worldwide

The chief executive of Leo Burnett Worldwide weathered the storm of the Publicis takeover and is too shrewd to give away the exact date of her departure, as James Hamilton discovers. Her impending retirement from an industry she's spent the past 30 years living and breathing may be softening Linda Wolf, the chief executive and, as it pointedly reads on her business card, chairman of Leo Burnett Worldwide. Her trademark spirit-level fringe is showing signs of growing out but it is hard to gauge what is going on behind the sunglasses - whether there's a hint of rheum when she acknowledges this could be her last Cannes Festival.

Wolf is a professional interviewee and does not lose any composure over such trivialities as retirement. The prospect seems to upset the PR minder, who sits beside her on the hotel terrace, more than it does Wolf.

And when Wolf describes how it feels never having to attend another breakfast meeting by the Majestic pool, she talks about it in terms of how this has been the best Cannes she's ever attended; how Leo Burnett's Miss Understood "why women aren't buying your ads" seminar has been one of the most popular in the Lions' history and rattles off a list of the 21 awards her agency has collected at the week's halfway point, all without pausing for breath.

Murmurs of "who?" and "so what?" greeted the news that the advertising industry was about to anoint a female global chief executive when Wolf was promoted to the position in January 2001. Never having run or even worked for a lengthy period in an office outside the US, her profile is not high outside her native country. While she spends two weeks each month visiting Burnett outposts, there are still staff in the London office who draw a blank when asked who their chief executive is.

Wolf soon got a chance to get right into the thick of things, though.

She'd been behind her new desk barely a year when news leaked of Maurice Levy's intention to buy Bcom3, the Dentsu-backed group comprising the iconic agencies Leo Burnett and D'Arcy. Two years on, Wolf argues she is leaving a company that is very well positioned for the future. But getting it to that stage has been no easy task. She talks about her agency's fortune at retaining most of its leadership through the transition; it is unclear whether she's deliberately or unintentionally forgetting the departure of a string of top executives, including Bob Brennan, the president of Leo Burnett, who resigned in autumn 2003 after clashing with his new masters in Paris. She runs through the company's admittedly enviable portfolio of clients but omits any reference to Polaroid, Delta Air Lines and Philips, three accounts the agency lost after the buyout. Just how hard did she find the transition?

"It was ..." she trails off and takes a rare pause to think. "It wasn't as tough as I thought it would be. Having been a privately held company, I was concerned about what it would be like. Actually, it has exceeded my expectations."

Faint praise for the joys of being part of a holding company soon translates into something more gushing, more Burnett. Levy and Publicis are terrific to work for; they recognise and understand the Burnett brand; yes, the company is in excellent shape; a lot of agencies haven't fared so well, she realises.

After Brennan's departure, how is the relationship with Publicis now?

"Actually, you know, it works really well," she says. She prefaces a lot of her answers with "actually, you know," as if the ideas have just come to her and she's never really needed to spend much time thinking about the dynamic between the two companies. "Being part of a major holding company is very important for a major brand such as Leo Burnett; we've gotten support when we've needed it, but (Publicis) doesn't have micro-involvement in the business." Starcom, the Leo Burnett media arm that spun off late in European terms but was an early adopter in the US, now reports directly to Publicis, leaving Wolf to focus her attention on creative and new business.

What about those persistent rumours that Publicis might consider merging Leo Burnett with Saatchi & Saatchi? "No, I cannot imagine that," she says emphatically. "I can't ever imagine that. The thing that's wonderful is that each of the brands in the Publicis Groupe is very strong in itself."

Wolf has been at the agency for 26 years so her passionate embrace of the Burnett line and her on-brand stance is neither hard to understand nor condone. Her career started on the other side of the fence, when she worked for Heinz in Pittsburgh in the market research department, but she soon developed a taste for advertising. "I loved the agency meetings - I loved seeing the work," she says. After one such presentation, she heard the agency was looking for account people. "One of the things they told me, which really struck me, was that if you're going to be a really good agency person, you always need to be anticipating. You always need to be on the leading edge. That's where I wanted to be, on that side of the table."

She has followed that advice closely over the past quarter of a century.

Widely praised as a "client-pleaser" when she ran the business development department in the 90s, she won a host of accounts - including such iconic brands as Walt Disney World and Coca-Cola - for the agency that created the Marlboro Man and the Jolly Green Giant. And now that she has weathered the storm after the Publicis takeover, she is arguably leaving the company in its best position for years. Levy's decision to dismantle D'Arcy was a fillip for both Saatchis and Leo Burnett. "A tough decision but the right decision," Wolf says. So why is she leaving just when things are starting to go well?

"I think it's time for new people to come in," is her answer. "I have done an excellent job in leading the company through a transition. It's always good to leave when things are going well."

She will miss the cut and thrust, that's for sure. New business is Wolf's favourite part of the industry. "It's advertising on steroids," she smiles.

"It's working within a much more compressed timeframe to do every aspect of building a brand. I'd say my greatest achievements are all new business." The Disney win stands out for her - the company had never really worked with an outside agency before. "The US Army is another. It is now a brand, and a very successful one." She's talking from a recruitment, not a geo-political, perspective.

Leo Burnett won the US Army account in 2000 and began to turn around the declining recruitment figures almost from day one. Out went the old "be all you can be" message, in came a line more in tune with post-millennial sensibilities, the eerily prescient "army of one" tag. "It's a great example of understanding the market and talking to people in their language," Wolf says. "Be all you can be is like parents telling them what to do; that is not what you do with kids today, you intrigue them."

Famously, at least in US advertising circles, Wolf went the extra distance (an extra 14,000 feet) to better understand her client. On the day Burnett won the account, Wolf was offered the chance to drive a tank or do a parachute jump with the Army's aerial performance team, the Golden Knights. She opted - jumped, even - for the latter. And she's been promised one more go before she leaves.

That could be some time off. At the moment, she's still training up her heir apparent, Tom Bernardin, the Leo Burnett president who joined from Lowe in March this year.

Bernardin's appointment was another first for Leo Burnett. The tradition has always been to find leaders from within the ranks. "I've worked very hard at not being bound by traditions," Wolf says. "The challenge with anyone leading Burnett is preserving that part of the heritage that is relevant today while moving the brand forward."

Bernardin, she thinks, embodies Burnett values and, with his international experience, is ideal to pass her worldwide baton on to. Wolf says he's even prepared to do her second parachute jump with her - although whether Levy will sanction his two chiefs flying in one plane at the same time is open to question.

Wolf says there are more similarities between her and Bernardin than anything else. Both are down to earth; both very respectful of the people who work for them. "We're collaborative and care about clients a lot.

Our style is very similar. Probably the only difference is that he's a man and I'm a woman," she says. Crucially, Bernardin has the international experience missing from Wolf's CV. Before the merger with Lowe, he was the chief executive of Bozell and put in an eight-year stint for McCann Erickson in Frankfurt and Rome.

Leo Burnett employees will have to wait and see whether the similarities are as eerie as Wolf believes. A 12- to 18-month period has been earmarked for the handover and Wolf will not be drawn on a definitive date for her leaving party. She says there is still unfinished (new) business at Burnett. "An airline would be good in the US. The one that is most in need of some rebranding is American," Wolf says. "And I would like to grow more with some of our current clients."

Wolf is clear on one thing, however. When she leaves, she'll be leaving advertising for good. "If I were going to stay in the industry, I'd stay at Leo Burnett," she says. The calls registering an interest in her services are starting to come through already - most of them requests for her to join various boards.

She is already a board member of the Chicago Field Museum of Natural History and the Children's Memorial Hospital, among others, and charity is an area she is clearly considering. "I love seeing the value you can add as a marketer to not-for-profit areas. It seems like pretty basic stuff to me but the impact you can have can be huge. But I haven't decided whether I'm going to do something which is Chicago-specific or more global. I don't know."

Whatever she decides, her position will be a tough one for Bernardin to fill. Wolf is incredibly well liked by those who know her. And although she might not be completely in touch with what her staff are thinking at a grass-roots level (she claims she has not heard any mutterings of resentment that two big Burnett clients, Procter & Gamble and McDonald's, are at Cannes), she will be sorely missed after 26 years at the company.

Does anything stand out in that quarter of a century?

"My proudest achievement, you mean?" She takes a rare pause again. "You know what? That I've managed to be successful in both of the most important areas of my life: raising my kids and having a career. To say you've been happy all these years, I don't think there's anything better than that.

"You won't print that line about being happy?" she asks. "Anyone British reading this is just going to go 'eurggh'. You're such a cynical bunch about that. I know 'happy' sounds trite, but it's true."

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