(L-R: James Walker-Smith, general manager, Sydney; Andy Fergusson, national executive creative director and Kate Silver, general manager, Melbourne)
An agency rooted in solving human problems to help businesses grow, Campaign Brief chats with Leo Burnett Australia’s senior leadership team to learn more…
Campaign Brief: Leo Burnett turns 88 this year. What relevance does an 88-year-old brand have in today’s advertising landscape?
James Walker-Smith: If you’ve ever Googled ‘Leo Burnett’ quotes, you’ll realise how ahead of his time Leo was. Or perhaps he just tapped into some of the timeless truths that still hold up today.
Leo’s core mantra was “What helps people, helps business”, and that is something we apply to all our clients; whether they are a 100 year old insurance company, or a 9 year old internet provider. It frees you up to use the best tools at your disposal to solve the people-problem, whether that looks like a film, an AI chatbot, or even a house.
Andy Fergusson: I think it’s why LB Australia has such a strong history in making innovative work. From earlier projects like ‘Earth Hour’, ‘Reword’ and ‘Brainband’, to more recent ideas like ‘One House’, ‘Honda Harvey’ and ‘Bundy Mixer’. And it’s not just happening in Australia. We are seeing incredibly progressive thinking coming from LB offices around the world, particularly in the APAC region.
CB: In a local industry that’s obsessed with independents, do the big agency networks still have a place?
Kate Silver: I love the work coming out of some of the independents at the moment, and it’s forcing everyone to lift their game. But great work ultimately comes down to the people. If there’s hunger, passion and talent, you’ll make great work. No matter who owns the company.
The reality is, there are still a lot of benefits to scale. We have access to talent in different disciplines, all over the world, and we’re constantly tapping into them to make the work better.
JWS: All the Publicis brands are in the one building, so there’s a very strong sense of community and connection between all the agencies and companies within the Groupe. If we need digital, PR, media, commerce, CX or production specialists, we only have to take a stroll across the corridor or walk up a flight of stairs. It’s very seamless and genuinely collective. We all share the same desire to do great work and have some fun doing it.
CB: You had a lot of awards success last year. How do you back up ideas like ‘One House’?
AF: Unfortunately, winning a Grand Prix in Cannes is not something you tend to do every year. But we were immensely proud that we did win back-to-back Grand Prix for Suncorp at Spikes. And that is due to the clear brand behaviour we have established for Suncorp.
But importantly, we are starting to see more wins across more of our biggest clients this year (Diageo, Honda, Suncorp, DNSW), which is a sign we’re heading in the right direction.
Awards are certainly not the endgame. But they are a sign you’re putting ideas into the world that are distinctive. And distinctive ideas make people engage with the brand, which is the endgame.
CB: What is the Leo Burnett style of work?
AF: I don’t think we have an agency style. But there are definitely themes in how we approach ideas. For example, projects like ‘One House’ and ‘Bundy Mixer’ might not appear to have much in common, but when you delve deeper you can start to see the similarities. Both are behaviour change ideas for big brands. Both employ innovative new ways to solve a human problem. Both are major partnerships with other organisations. And both (exhaustingly) took quite a few years to make. But the truth is, our favourite work is sometimes the quick, fun stuff we turn around in weeks, rather than years.
We try not to let our own preferences dictate the tone of the work we make. It always must be in service of the idea and the brand voice. Our work for Bundy, Honda, Suncorp, Superloop and HBF couldn’t be more different, and that’s the way we like it.
CB: Leo Burnett won the Rigg Design Prize last year. What was the process that went into that?
AF: When the NGV first approached us with the brief, we got together as a leadership team and decided that we weren’t going to try to win. Instead, we wanted to use the exhibition to demonstrate who LB are and how we solve problems. That led us to the approach of using the exhibition as a real-time experiment in creativity to solve a human problem.
We were quite shocked to win in the end. But in some ways, it’s indicative of any great creative process. You’ll always have more success focussing on what you think is the most interesting and compelling solution, rather than trying to focus on winning awards.
CB: You have some extremely long-term clients. What’s the secret to keeping clients happy?
KS: Don’t sit still. Market and consumer conditions are always changing, so we try to identify when things are due for a reset before the client calls a pitch.
And we aren’t a ‘ta da’ agency. We don’t believe that clients should have to wait for that big reveal. Ideas are iterative, and the creative process needs to be collaborative.
Your average staff tenure is 4.5 years. Why do people stay so long at Leo’s?
JWS: Leo Burnett has a lot of great staff initiatives that are attractive to people. But at the end of the day, people stay when they’re doing fulfilling work. I was at Leo’s for a long time in London and now a long time in Sydney – we have a fundamental DNA here which is about creating work that matters and delivers, respecting and supporting each other and just trying to do the best we can.
What type of people do you look for as a Burnetter?
KS: The obligatory answer to this question is that we don’t want to hire assholes, but that goes without saying. Honestly, we look for people who genuinely want to make the best work of their careers by solving problems for brands.
How do your Melbourne and Sydney offices work together?
JWS: There’s a lot of talk of one agency, two doors. But Leo Burnett has definitely achieved that. All processes and resourcing are shared across both offices, and the leadership team is across both Melbourne and Sydney. We try and focus on connecting the right briefs with the right people, no matter where they might live.
What does Leo Burnett look like in 5 years?
AF: It’s hard to say what any agency will look like in 5 years. But we know that ‘what helps people, helps business’ will continue to remain true. Let’s just hope our future AI overlords agree.