How Leo Burnett became famous in the advertising industry

On October 21 in the year 1891, one of the most influential individuals in advertising was born in Michigan, United States. His name was Leo Burnett, the founding chairman of Leo Burnett Company.

Leo Burnett
Leo Burnett (Credit: google image)

Leo Burnett was the son of a dry goods store owner. He received a degree in journalism from the University of Michigan. After graduation, he became a police reporter for the Peoria Journal Star in Peoria, Illinois. Later, he moved to Detroit where he edited an in-house publication, then promoted as advertising head of the Cadillac Motor Company. He moved to Indianapolis to become the advertising head of LaFayette Motors Company. After he left LaFayette, he joined the ad agency of Homer McKee where he spent the next ten years of his life. From 1930 to 1935, he stayed with Erwin, Wasey & Company.

In 1935, Leo Burnett founded the Leo Burnett Company, Inc. in Chicago. With only a handful of clients in in the company’s initial years, he experienced real struggle but he persisted. After World War II, the company took off with the addition of new and bigger client-companies such as Pillsbury, Campbell Soup, and Kellogg’s. Their reason for being attracted to him was the emphasis of “hominess”, a theme that connects to the people of the Midwest. Not only that, its ads made sure to highlight the attribute of the product rather the catchiness of the slogan. Later on, this was developed into the so-called “Chicago School of advertising”.

In 1954, Leo Burnett was appointed by Philip Morris to create a commercial for Marlboro. The use of rugged male actors propelled the struggling cigarette into a major brand. The company went on to originate distinctive ads such as the Maytag Repairman, Tony the Tiger, Charlie the Tuna, United’s “Fly the Friendly Skies,” and Allstate’s “Good Hands”.

Leo with only a handful of clients died in 1971 at the age of 79. He had three children with his wife Naomi. At the time of his death, Leo Burnett Company had the fifth largest billings in the advertising industry. Currently, the company is part of the French-owned Publicis Group alongside Saatchi and Saatchi.


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