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Agency Profile: Leo Burnett Toronto

Posted on July 20, 2011 and read 9,614 times

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brettcreditpic Agency Profile: Leo Burnett TorontoBrett McKenzie
Chief Writer, SBN2

Many of ihaveanidea’s long-time followers know that although we are currently headquartered in the eclectic city of Montreal, Canada, we were “born” in Toronto (literally, in my case). We started our careers on the Toronto ad scene, and thus we have always been pretty familiar with the various shops in town. But we have been in “la belle province” for a number of years now, and everybody knows that a few years in the ad biz can see an eternity of changes.

So when we walked into the office tower on the southeast corner of Bloor and Church, home of the Toronto office of Leo Burnett (and neighborhood of most of the multinational agencies), one of the first things I noticed is how unchanged the place is. And I’m not talking the décor here; although it must be at least five years since I’ve last visited these halls, the number of familiar faces is astounding. But then again, this is an agency with a local reputation for having people join, fall in love with the place and never leave, like a happy, ad world Hotel California.

If there is anybody who best exemplifies the cure for wanderlust that Leo Burnett Toronto seems to have within its walls, it would be Judy John, the agency’s Chief Creative Officer and recently appointed Chief Executive Officer. “When I first started in this business, I had the urge to move around a lot,” she explains. “Chiat, Roche, Taxi, BBDO, Ogilvy, I was never at one place for more than two years. I was one of those creatives who was always seeking out new challenges, and did that by moving around. But when I came here in 1999, I quickly noticed that there was something in the air that kept people at the agency for many years, not just here in Toronto but throughout the network. Initially it scared me a bit. It almost seemed like a cult. But it isn’t a cult, it’s a culture, one where everyone strives to do their best work here, and twelve years later I am glad to say I believe that wholeheartedly.”

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Most multinational agencies tend to exhibit a global culture, a familiarity with the way things are done, and this is never more evident than when chatting with the folks at Leo Burnett Toronto. “We definitely feel like we are a part of something larger than our office,” one creative explains. “I’ve been to the UK, I’ve been to Japan, I’ve been to the Chicago office, and there is just something that makes us all ‘Burnetters’. I think it’s the spirit of Burnett himself. You’ve all heard his famous ‘when to take my name off the door‘ speech, and I think many of the things he spoke about are found in the people here.”

Leo Burnett Toronto has a staff of about 150 people, with about 25 to 30 of them in the creative department. “25, 30, whatever the number is, it’s not enough,” jokes Lisa Greenberg, VP, Creative Director. The department is still made up of traditional teams of copywriters and art directors, but finds itself incorporating more hybrid roles as the agency moves away from being a TV-centric shop to one that is more media-agnostic and design-friendly. Regardless of the assignment, all of the creatives have a keen focus on creating work that scores high on Leo Burnett’s internal GPC Scale..”The GPC Scale keeps us competitive and on our toes,” says Lisa. “It helps us strive to do work that is poignant and relevant. And of course you want to do work that stands up to all of the other Leo Burnett offices around the world. It’s a source of pride to do well on that scale each quarter, and even if you don’t do as well, the work from other offices that do score well are so inspirational.”

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When the folks at Leo Burnett Toronto aren’t working on cracking that GPC stratosphere, they like to get together for a variety of pursuits. The agency fields both a hockey and a soccer team (who both play a little rougher than they should, as we are told about the injuries the day after a game) and everybody likes to hoist the occasional pint at the Bishop and the Belcher downstairs, but we gather that this isn’t a crazy, party hard agency, as many creatives here have families they like to get home to – a rarity on a busy schedule.

A creative’s mind has to stay nourished in order to produce great work, and Leo Burnett Toronto acknowledges this. Each creative receives an annual allowance of about $300 to spend on things to inspire themselves, and the agency is quite willing to help facilitate courses and programs that help improve the staff, such as presentation skills classes. The creative department also has frequent off-sites to chat about various cultural paradigm shifts… or to do drunk karaoke, one or the other.

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As mentioned earlier, Leo Burnett Toronto has a surprisingly low turnover rate, and the agency likes to reward people for their years of service. Everybody who works here receives a chocolate apple on their birthday, and a ‘five year lunch’, a special meal to celebrate five years with the agency.

The strength of an agency is often judged on its creative department, and the strength of that department is judged on its CD (come on, would you really hire Sterling Cooper if Don Draper didn’t work there?)_So we decided to ask Judy John  about her own managerial style, about how she guides the ship. Apparently she started honing her talent long before she arrived at Leo Burnett. “My family owns a Chinese restaurant, and I started working there when I was eight,” she recalls. “And when you work in a small family business, everybody does everything and is very hands-on. There is no ‘well that’s not my section’ because it’s all your section. That’s the sort of vibe we have here, and it’s one that flies in the face of what you expect a large agency to be like. If there’s a problem to solve, it’s all hands on deck, with everybody chipping in.”

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Judy continues explaining this ‘small family business’ approach when describing Leo Burnett’s recent win of the IKEA Canada account. ” When we were pitching for IKEA, we had everybody in here, from the president down to the art directors and account people, literally with their sleeves rolled up, assembling furniture. It needed to get one, and everybody wanted to help and have fun while doing it. And it came through to the client as well. We were the largest agency involved in the pitch, and IKEA is known worldwide for working with more boutique-y shops, so we felt like underdogs. But when we won the pitch, the people at IKEA remarked that we felt like a small agency and not a multinational, which is an affirmation of what we’ve been trying to do here.”

Of course we had to ask the creative department to spill all the dirt on Judy when she wasn’t in the room. Alas, no seedy stories, just plenty of great remarks. “The wonderful thing about Judy is that she can smell bullshit a mile away,” remarks on creative. ” She doesn’t get riled up, but she knows when you can do better, and can push to to think in directions you initially weren’t thinking it.” Another creative gives his own assessment. “She’s a lot of fun to work with. Oh, and if you’re all working late, rest assured you’ll be eating well. Judy knows all the best order-out restaurants.”

So to sum it all up, what kind of person is an Leo Burnett Toronto creative? “We are a diverse group, but if you are amazingly talented, a hard worker and a genuinely good natured, ego-free person, we just might want you here,” says Lisa. “You won’t want to leave.”

Thanks to Judy, Lisa, and the rest of the Burnetters for speaking to us about the agency.

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