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Leo Burnett

Birthdate: (79)
Birthplace: Saint Johns, Clinton County, Michigan, United States
Death: June 7, 1971 (79)
Lake Zurich, Lake County, Illinois, United States (heart attack)
Immediate Family:

Son of Noble Israel Burnett and Rosa B. Clark
Husband of Naomi Burnett
Father of Phoebe Snetsinger; <private> Burnett and <private> Burnett

Managed by: Private User
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Immediate Family

About Leo Burnett

Leo Burnett (October 21, 1891 – June 7, 1971) was an advertising executive and was among the most 'creative' men in the advertising business. The 19th century was dominated by the copy-heavy ads with lengthy product descriptions and selling arguments, however, he developed fresh simple icons that came to symbolize easy-to-understand product benefits for the 20th-century consumer. He was known for being heavily involved in the Creative Revolution in the 1960s, with other great advertising heads like David Ogilvy, William Bernbach and Mary Wells. Burnett was named by Time Magazine as one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century.


Born in St. Johns, Michigan, his parents were Noble and Rose Clark Burnett. His father ran a dry goods store and as a youth, Burnett worked with his father in the store. He grew up watching his father designing ads to promote his business. During high school, he worked as a reporter for a local, rural newspaper in the summers. After high school he went to study journalism at the University of Michigan and received his Bachelor's degree in 1914. His first job was as a reporter at the Peoria Journal in Peoria, Illinois. In his spare time he wrote and published various short stories between 1915 and 1921. After realizing the future growth possibilities in advertising, he moved to Detroit in 1917, and he got a job editing an in-house publication for Cadillac dealers called Cadillac Clearing House as a copywriter. He successfully went on to become an advertising director for the company.

In 1918, he married Naomi Geddes, whose father was a newspaper man. He went on to have three children: Peter, Joseph and Phoebe.

During World War I he joined the Navy for six months. However, he never got to sea as he spent most of his time at Great Lakes building a breakwater, and hauling cement. After his time in the Navy he returned to Cadillac for a short while. It was then when a few employees at Cadillac formed the LaFayette Motors Company. He moved to Indianapolis, Indiana as the advertising manager for the company. With the company struggling, he found himself with an offer from Homer McKee. He left LaFayette and was hired to work for Homer Mckee Company as head of McKee's creative operation. This was his first agency job.

After spending a decade working for McKee's Company, and working through the stock market crash of 1929. He decided to move on if he was to amount to anything in the advertising business. In 1930, he moved to Chicago and was hired by Erwin, Wasey & Company and worked as the vice-president and the creative head of the company. He worked for Erwin Wasey for five years and in 1935 he founded the Leo Burnett Company Inc.

On June 7, 1971, at the age of 79, he died of a heart attack at his family farm in Lake Zurich, Illinois.

Leo Burnett Company

His own firm, the Chicago-based Leo Burnett Company, became the 10th largest advertising agency in the world, the eighth largest in the United States, and one of only a handful of top-ten American agencies not headquartered in New York City.

A Private company formed in 1935 and officially running under the name of 'Leo Burnett Company, Inc.' Which is a wholly owned subsidiary of Publicis Groupe. The Company started with eight employees and three clients. It now operates with 200 units globally and the company also includes 'a variety of speciality marketing services and 94 full-service advertising agencies in 83 countries.'

"Headquartered more than a thousand miles from Manhattan, the Chicago-based Leo Burnett Company creates unique advertising campaigns grounded in traditional American values and traditions. The majority of its clients are large, consumer-driven corporations, marketing everything from fast food to cigarettes to frozen foods."

For the first decade of Burnett opening his company he only billed about 1 million in the first few years of the business running and then eventually moving up to 10 million dollars annually, however, in 1950, his billings more than doubled to 22 million dollars and by 1954 the company was at 55 million dollars annually. The company simply grew from this point due to Burnett hiring Richard Heath who bought in bigger clients. Due to TV advertising hitting a boom in the 1950s Burnett's company only benefited from this. By the end of the 1950s, the Leo Burnett Company was billing 100 million dollars annually.

The advertising agency employs around 6,950 and using all these employees for all their talents, Leo Burnett Company is the workings behind some of the most famous advertising icons in our time, some of these include the Jolly Green Giant, Tony the Tiger and the well known Marlboro Man.


The Leo Burnett Company is famous for its employee retention. It has a long standing reputation for keeping employees at their company and according to a company executive "new staffers are assigned to their first account "for life". In the company, layoffs are very rare.

Iconic company symbols

Big black pencils

Leo Burnett Company is famous for using big black pencils, with the idea that “big ideas come from big pencils”.


Apples have become a symbol for the Leo Burnett Company ever since Leo Burnett put out a bowl of apples at reception when he opened his doors in the middle of the Great Depression. Opening in the middle of the great depression caused a lot of talk, and people said it would not be long before Leo Burnett would be selling apples on the street. Apples continue to be a symbol of Leo Burnett’s hospitality and success throughout the years.


Stars have become another iconic symbol of Leo Burnett through Leo Burnett’s philosophy, “when you reach for the stars you may not quite get one, but you won't come up with a handful of mud either.” They continue to represent this strive for greatness in all of their work.

Companies Burnett worked with

Green Giant (1935)

Philip Morris Co. (1954)

Pillsbury (1944)

Kellogg's (1949)

Proctor & Gamble (1952)

Commonwealth Edison (1954)

Maytag (1955)

Allstate (1957)

Heinz Pet Products (1958)

Starkist (1958)

First Brands (1961)

United Airlines (1965)

General Motors Oldsmobile (1967)

Keebler Co. (1968)

Advertising techniques

Leo Burnett used dramatic realism in his advertising, the Soft sell approach to build brand equity. Burnett believed in finding the inherent drama of products and presenting it in advertising through warmth, shared emotions and experiences. His advertising drew from heartland-rooted values using simple, strong and instinctive imagery that talked to people. He was also known for using cultural archetypes in his copy, by creating mythical creatures that represented American values. This is evident on such campaigns as Jolly Green Giant, Tony the Tiger, Pillsbury Doughboy and more famously the Marlboro Man.

Corny language

Leo Burnett was known for keeping a folder in the lower left-hand corner of his desk called "Corny Language". He collected words, phrases, and analogies that struck him as being particularly apt in expressing an idea. This was not meant by maxims, gags, or slang, but words, phrases and analogies which convey a feeling of honesty and that drive home a clear point.

Creative process

His creative process could be summed up in three points:

1.'There is an inherent drama in every product. Our No.1 job is to dig for it and capitalize on it.'

2.'When you reach for the stars, you may not quite get one, but you won't come up with a handful of mud either.'

3.'Steep yourself in your subject, work like hell, and love, honor and obey your hunches.'

Burnett's quotes

He was renowned for having said a number of interesting quotes and thoughts.

"When you reach for the stars you may not quite get one, but you won't come up with a handful of mud either."

"I have learned that any fool can write a bad ad, but that it takes a real genius to keep his hands off a good one."

"Good advertising does not just circulate information. It penetrates the public mind with desires and belief."

"Make it simple. Make it memorable. Make it inviting to look at. Make it fun to read."

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Leo Burnett's Timeline

October 21, 1891
Saint Johns, Clinton County, Michigan, United States
June 9, 1931
Age 39
Lake Zurich, Lake County, Illinois, United States
June 7, 1971
Age 79
Lake Zurich, Lake County, Illinois, United States