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Famous Unrelated (as far as we know) Burnetts

Compiled by E. Sue Terhune


Advertising Giant

He was christened Leo Noble Burnett in St. Johns, Michigan on October 21, 1891, the first of four children born to Rose and Noble Burnett. The name came to him by accident. An abbreviation of his intended name, George, was misread by hospital officials completing the birth certificate. So instead of Geo. Noble Burnett, the world was given Leo. His father owned a dry-goods store, where Leo eventually gained his first advertising experience designing and lettering show cards. During high school, Leo was a corresponding reporter for several county-seat weeklies. After graduation, he taught in a one-room schoolhouse in rural St. Johns, but the position was only temporary.

Leo entered the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor in 1910, and graduated four years later with a degree in journalism. (He paid for his education working as a night editor of the Michigan Daily,and by lettering show cards for a department store.) His first job after college was as a reporter for the Peoria, (Illinois) Journal.He earned $18 a week. He stayed with the Journal for one year, but a former classmate told him,  "You're a sucker to stay in Peoria...the automobile  industry is the place to be."

W hen a former college professor wrote to Leo that the Cadillac Motor Car Company in Detroit was looking for someone to edit a house magazine, he jumped at the chance to apply. He landed the job and soon Cadillac assigned its advertising responsibilities to Leo as well. In 1917 he met Naomi Geddes, who was working as a restaurant cashier near the Cadillac Company.  They were married one year later in Detroit, shortly before Leo joined the United States Navy for six months during World War I. He spent his service building a breakwater in Lake Michigan, a fact he later jokingly told his children "caused a great deal of agitation among the German High Command and was probably responsible for the loss of Verdun."

Leo's postwar stint with Cadillac ended when several employees broke away to form the brand new LaFayette Motors, the "American Rolls-Royce." Leo moved with them to Indianapolis as advertising manager, but when the suffering LaFayette Company retreated to Wisconsin, Leo signed on as creative head of the Homer McKee advertising agency in Indianapolis. There he wrote ads for 10 years. During that time, he and Naomi became the parents of two boys and a  girl.

Shortly after the stock market crash in 1929, Leo left Homer McKee and moved to Chicago, where he went to work for Erwin Wasey as Creative Vice President. Wasey was enjoying temporary status as the largest advertising agency in the world. It was 1930. Finally, on August 5, 1935  with $50,000, he opened the doors that bore his name for the first time. Leo was 44 years old.

Leo wanted to create superior advertising. He believed that "lurking in every product which deserves success is a reason for being and a reason for buying which is deeply felt by the manufacturer and which, if captured and communicated, is the best of all possible advertising, because it is honest and believable. The trick is to make it interesting and exciting." Leo wrote many ads for his new company, although his role eventually became editor rather than writer. According to a former Burnett account executive, "He was not an ivory tower kind of guy. He was down there with his shirt sleeves rolled up and the black pencils scrubbing around." Leo Burnett adored the advertising business. DeWitt O'Kieffe, one of the founders, once said of his boss, "Leo had more fun at the agency than a person taking the day off to play golf." An Eastern client once described Leo as "a mid-continent person -- frank and lots of fun. When the pressure is hardest and things look blackest, Leo will leap up in the middle of a meeting, look around, grin and comment, 'Isn't this fun?'"

In 1942, Leo purchased a farm near Lake Zurich, Ill., which inspired in him an intense love of nature. He planted more than 20,000 trees on the farm and could identify several hundred varieties of wild flowers. After the shock of Pearl Harbor, Leo plunged into work for The War Advertising Council. One of his first acts was volunteering the agency's time in the crusade to collect scrap metal for the war effort. On Saturday mornings, or Friday nights, or Sundays, a cavalry of art directors, writers, account executives, research people, etc. would converge on Leo's office at the farm  a tradition that continued for many years. Several enduring ideas, such as the Marlboro cowboy (1955), were created during those sessions. In a career that spanned nearly six decades, his aptitude for inventing evocative, easily recognizable corporate identities also created the Jolly Green Giant, the Pillsbury Doughboy (1965), Tony the Tiger (1951), Keebler Elves and Morris the Cat (1968). On its 25th anniversary, the Leo Burnett Company was the sixth-largest agency in the U.S., billed $110 million and had 900 employees and 24 clients on its roster.

In the mid '60's, Leo found it harder to maintain his pace with the agency.  Illness kept him away from the office more and more, and he required rest periods on the days he was present. But his enthusiasm never waned. In 1967, Leo retired from active management, announcing that he was "stepping down, but not out." He traveled to the office at least twice a week and continued to generate enough paperwork to keep two secretaries busy full-time. His last day at the office was June 7, 1971. He worked for several hours, traveled home to Lake Zurich, and ate dinner with Naomi.  Later that evening, Leo suffered a heart attack on his Lake Zurich farm and died
quietly in his sleep. He was 79 years old.

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