Raising the bar with Leo Burnett’s creative CEO

Leo Burnett’s Tom Bernardin is a self-confessed bean counter. But he tells Tim Addington creativity can boost your bottom line

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By  Tim Addington Published  April 30, 2006

Raising the bar with Leo Burnett’s creative CEO |~|berardin200.jpg|~|Bernardin... ‘We need to wake up and start understanding what we are in competition with’|~|By his own admission, Tom Bernardin is a suit. A businessman whose objective is to make the balance sheet add up at the end of the year and return a healthy profit to shareholders. But for much of our 40-minute discussion, the chairman and CEO of Leo Burnett Worldwide focuses on creativity and his plans for raising the bar at the agency. “You have got to make the money, of course, and count the beans, but you have also got to understand what it takes to get the beans in the first place, and that is the creativity,” he says. Just over a year into his reign at the helm of one of the world’s largest advertising agencies, Bernardin is paying his second visit to the region and is quick to point out that he is the first CEO from Leo Burnett to come to the Middle East in 30 years. Unsurprisingly for a visiting agency boss, he praises the local team of Burnett creatives. “Our creative people are operating on a world class stage in terms of creativity and they have moved on more in the past couple of years than any time in their history,” he says. “The creative we are seeing coming out of the region is comparable to some of the best work we see out of London, the US or South America.” It would appear that, publicly, the only concerns he has for the Middle East operation is maintaining its current growth and attracting “the top talent into the company”. It is on the last point that Bernardin speaks most engagingly, and may give a clue to why he is dubbed “The Creative CEO” by staff at the agency. “We call Tom the creative CEO, because creatives love Tom, and he puts them in power around the world,” interjects Julie Thompson, Leo Burnett’s executive vice president, director for corporate affairs, who is sitting alongside him during the interview. In response, Bernardin says: “It is surprising to me when you don’t have people in positions of leadership that understand the very fundamental fact that it’s nurturing and getting the very best creative talent that matters.” Having spent more than 12 months taking a hard look at the business — and growing it for the first time in four years — what does he want to change and improve? We are back to the C word. “What I want to change is what we are focusing on and it is our creative. We continue to do better and better creatively and I want to be more public and more outspoken as a brand about the creative success that we do have. We are really moving up in the world… we really are improving the reputation across the world.” So the creative wasn’t up to scratch before he took over? “I wouldn’t say it wasn’t up to standard, but I would say that it was lagging behind where we had been in the past and where we absolutely want to be in the future, it is something that you have to be totally focused on. “And if I have done anything in my entire career it has been focused on creative and creative output. I pride myself on getting next to the creatives and getting in the most talented, hardest to handle creative talent in the marketplace.” His entry into advertising was, as he puts it, an accident. He originally wanted to be a doctor. “I had a big battle with calculus and chemistry. I am in advertising and get to deal with a lot of sick people anyway on occasions,” he says. Eventually settling on a degree in marketing, it was his impending marriage and the need to get a job that led to his career in advertising. With a little help from his father, who worked as a creative director. He says: “One of the interviews he set up for me was at McCann Erickson and they were the first company that said yes, so that was the job I took because I had to marry Martha. That’s how it all started.” He spent nine years in Europe with McCann, including stints in both Rome and Frankfurt. Prior to joining Leo Burnett he was president and CEO at Bozell, where under his tenure the agency was named the third most creative at Cannes in 2002. The merger of Bozell and Lowe New York, saw him become the CEO at Lowe New York, and it was from there that he moved to Leo Burnett. “I am from the business side. The fact that my father was a creative director, meant I probably inherited a bit of the DNA,” he says. After a brief sojourn into his past, Bernardin launches an attack on the advertising industry and the way it currently treats its leaders of tomorrow. “I am on a bit of a mission to recruit young people and the best young people,” he says. “Our business for too long has gone through a period of not being as aggressive as we should have been on recruiting the minds that are going to our competitors outside of the advertising industry. “We need to wake up and start understanding what we are in competition with and if we want the minds, we need to change.” The main point of issue is pay at entry levels in the advertising industry, which he says has been woeful, deterring people from pursuing a career in the business. Using the example of his own son, Bernardin claims that an undergraduate in the US can leave university and walk into a job with a bank on a starting salary of US$80,000. He adds: “You can’t even come close to that in advertising and we better think about that because it is the old adage, you get what you pay for.” And how does he intend to address the lack of young people choosing careers in the industry? It’s that C word again. “I am talking about a mind change in the way we recruit and go after the best minds and attract them back into advertising the way we had that at one time,” he says. “I think as we continue to make creative the focus in our business — really the focus — that will begin to attract those minds.” While agency heads from a business background claim that creative is at the heart of what they do, you get the impression that it is nothing more than lip service, designed to rally the troops. Bernardin is upfront — he is a bean counter first and foremost, a suit, but someone who recognises that creativity can underpin your bottom line - the creative CEO.||**||

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