Burnett was born on October 21, 1891, in St. Johns, Michigan. He was the oldest child of Noble and Rose Clark Burnett, who ran a dry goods store. Burnett worked in the store as a youth, where he watched his father design ads to promote his business. He also lettered advertising signs for his father. But Burnett felt he was at a disadvantage. In The Mirror Makers: A History of American Advertising and Its Creators, author Stephen Fox quoted Burnett as saying "I always figured that I was less smart than some people, but that if I worked hard enough maybe I would average out all right." While attending high school, Burnett worked as a reporter for local, rural newspapers during the summer. After graduation, he taught school for a short while.
Burnett attended the University of Michigan, receiving a bachelor's degree in 1914. His dream at that point was to become publisher of The New York Times. To that end, he worked as a police reporter for a newspaper in Peoria, Illinois for one year. When he learned how much money could be made in advertising, Burnett decided to make a career change. He got a job editing an in-house publication for Cadillac dealers called Cadillac Clearing House. Burnett went on to become an advertising director for that company. He was mentored by Theodore F. MacManus, a leading figure in advertising at the time, known for his ethics.
On May 29, 1918, Burnett married Naomi Geddes, with whom he had three children, Peter, Joseph, and Phoebe. He then joined the Navy for six months. After the First World War ended, Burnett moved his family to Indianapolis, Indiana. He became the advertising manager for a new car company, LaFayette Motors, which was founded by former Cadillac employees. When the company left Indiana, Burnett stayed.
In 1919, he was hired by a local advertising agency, the Homer McGee Company. In this agency, Burnett handled automobile ads for several accounts. A rising star in the company, he was content to remain in this position for over a decade. Although he made half-hearted attempts to find jobs in New York City, the capital of advertising, nothing came of these efforts. When Burnett neared 40, he thought it was time to make a move and was hired by New York's Erwin, Wassey to work in their Chicago office as a vice president and the head of the creative department. Burnett worked at Erwin, Wassey for five years. There were some problems finding good creative personnel. Burnett brought in some people from the Homer McGee Company because many of his most creative people were being lured to New York City. One valued employee was Dewitt "Jack" O'Kieffe, who got an offer from a New York City agency. He gave Burnett an ultimatum: start his own agency or O'Kieffe would make the move.
Founded Leo Burnett Company
On August 5, 1935, Burnett founded the Leo Burnett Company, Inc., in Chicago with $50,000 and several creative employees from Erwin, Wassey, including O'Kieffe. In The Mirror Makers, Fox quoted Burnett as saying "My associates and I saw the opportunity to offer a creative service badly needed in the Middle West. I sold my house, hocked all my insurance, and took a dive off the end of a springboard." What made Burnett's venture especially risky was the fact that advertising's big players were located on Madison Avenue in New York City.
The first years were hard. The Leo Burnett Company's first accounts were "women's products," including The Hoover Company, Minnesota Valley Canning Company, and Realsilk Hosiery Mills. The company billed less than $1 million in 1935-36. Yet Burnett persevered, and carved out his empire where he was most comfortable. Burnett was a modest man without the ego that dominated many advertising agency owners. In his obituary in Time, the unnamed author wrote, "He was, in brief, the antithesis of the popular conception of the sleek, cynical advertising man." Burnett named himself president and worked day and night, every day except Christmas. He had no real interests outside of advertising. While Burnett was unassuming and a horrible public speaker, his ads revolutionized the industry. Stuart Ewan of Time wrote, "Leo Burnett, the jowly genius of the heartland subconscious, is the man most responsible for the blizzard of visual imagery that assaults us today."
Burnett's Revolutionary Ads
At the time, print ads focused on words, long explanations of why a consumer should buy the product. Burnett believed such advertising was misguided. As Fox wrote in The Mirror Makers, "Instead of the fashionable devices of contests, premiums, sex, tricks and cleverness, he urged, use the product itself, enhanced by good artwork, real information, recipes, and humor." Yet all visuals did not have to be direct in Burnett's opinion. They could also work subliminally. Ewan of Time wrote, "Visual eloquence, he was convinced, was far more persuasive, more poignant, than labored narratives, verbose logic, or empty promises. Visuals appealed to the 'basic emotions and primitive instincts' of consumers."
Burnett broke all the rules. For example, in the mid-1940s, it was basically taboo to depict raw meat in advertising. To send the message home in a campaign for the American Meat Institute, Burnett and his company put the raw, red meat against an even redder background. Such radical images caught the consumer's eye. Still, Burnett's agency only billed about $10 million a year for its first decade of existence. The world had yet to catch up to Burnett's ideas.
Client List Grew
By the end of World War II, Burnett's billings began to increase, more than doubling to $22 million in 1950. By 1954, they doubled again to $55 million. Burnett's success increased for a number of reasons. He hired Richard Heath, who promoted the agency and brought in new, bigger clients, including Kellogg, Pillsbury, Procter & Gamble, and Campbell Soup. They were attracted by Burnett's creative ads. When television became a powerful advertising force in the 1950s, Burnett's company thrived because of its emphasis on the visual instead of market research. Ewan of Time wrote, "Burnett forged his reputation around the idea that 'share of market' could only be built on 'share of mind,' the capacity to stimulate consumers' basic desires and beliefs." Television did this best in Burnett's opinion, because the product's inherent drama could be presented via a series of memorable images.
In the 1950s, Burnett and his company developed a number of advertising icons that ended up lasting for decades. Among these were Charlie the Tuna for Starkist Tuna, Tony the Tiger for Kellogg's Frosted Flakes, the underemployed Maytag repairman, and the Jolly Green Giant. Like many of Burnett's icons, the Jolly Green Giant is an image based in folklore and therefore familiar to many consumers. The Jolly Green Giant was created for one of the company's first clients, the Minnesota Canning Company. Eventually, the company renamed itself Green Giant because of the power of this icon, and saw its sales dramatically increase from the $5 million figure in 1935.
Developed the Marlboro Man
One of Burnett's most famous advertising icons was the Marlboro Man. When first introduced, in 1955, filter cigarettes were considered unmanly, intended for a female consumer. By using the manliest man-a tattooed cowboy astride a horse-filter Marlboros became viewed as a very masculine product by consumers. Burnett changed the way filter cigarettes were marketed and Marlboros became the best selling cigarettes on the market. By the end of the 1950s, the Leo Burnett Company was billing over $100 million annually.
Though the company and its clients had grown exponentially, Burnett remained very involved with his company. He headed the planning board, through which every ad had to pass. Burnett wanted to ensure consumers focused on the product, not the ad. Though he was in charge, the atmosphere at the agency was a true collaborative process. Burnett was a demanding boss, but one capable of self-deprecating humor. In the 1960s, Burnett received the recognition of his peers, as his ideas became more widespread and affected the industry as whole. In 1961, Burnett was one of the four original inductees into the Copywriters Hall of Fame. As Fox in The Mirror Makers wrote, "From Burnett came a tradition of gentle manners, humor, credibility, and a disdain of research." In the 1960s, the "Chicago school" of advertising became a common phrase to describe Burnett's ads. Some peers used it negatively, arguing that his ads were low brow and corny. Burnett shrugged off such views, in his company motto: "When you reach for the stars, you may not get one, but you won't come up with a handful of mud either."