Melinda Geertz on 38 years at Leos, the VivaWomen initiative and thoughts on the pitch process

After more than three decades at Leo Burnett, Melinda Geertz speaks to Mumbrella's Calum Jaspan about the timing of her departure, what she would like to be remembered for at the agency she has devoted her professional life to, who inspired her, and what she hopes to have passed on to the next generation of female leaders.

As we caught up over a video chat, both in lockdown in Melbourne, Melinda Geertz told me about the strange experience that is finishing up at a place you have spent the best part of your life at.

30 July was Geertz’s last day at Publicis Groupe’s Leo Burnett, capping off 38 years at the agency. An agency where she started her career. She is a rare, one agency, advertising professional.

Melinda Geertz, August 2021

One agency, almost four decades

“I really, really love my job. And I love Leo’s. I’ve invested so much of ‘me’ in the brand and business. The problem is that I could easily imagine continuing in this role for another 10 years!”

Geertz is quick to acknowledge though, that she knows this wouldn’t be right for herself, or the business.

Once I identified Emma as my successor, it felt like the time to start thinking about the next chapter – for me and Leo’s. Nothing is forever, nor should it be.”

Joining Leo Burnett in 1983 through a management training program in the agency’s hometown of Chicago, there aren’t many that have spent such a long stint at a single agency, even those with their names on the door.

“My name isn’t on the door, but I love the name that is,” said Geertz as she looks back on her time.

Geertz said that when joining the Melbourne office almost two decades ago, Richard Pinder, then president of Leo Burnett Asia Pacific gave her carte blanche to take the agency in whatever direction she saw fit, encouraging her to build an agency she would want to work at.

“At the time, I had just had my third baby, Sophie. It was inspiring to have permission to blow things up, which I did in my own way. We felt like we were a start-up. The only difference was that we were doing it as Leo Burnett, which has some pretty fabulous DNA.”

In an industry now that is almost defined by movement, Geertz says staying at Leo’s her entire career to date has been largely owed to the agency’s ability to evolve with the times, and most importantly, maintain a focus on a healthy culture.

“I think, here in Australia, we’ve always been able to march to the beat of our own drum. We have a confidence that comes from liking who we are. There’s no artifice. I hear it all the time from clients and new Burnetters. We’re authentic. It’s a buzzword now, but it’s a truth of Leo’s.”

Geertz says it is this that helped drive “human, cultural, brave and original” ideas, pointing to campaigns ‘One House’ for Suncorp, ‘Family Cans’ for SPC, ‘Sponsored Post’ for Samsung, ‘Unplugged’ for Bonds, and ‘Reword’ for Headspace as an example of this.



She highlights some of the figures of inspiration throughout her career who have helped put her on her trajectory, influencing her creatively, intellectually and as a human being, as well as shaping this aforementioned culture.

Amongst those include Mark Tutssel, former Leo’s stalwart who departed the agency in 2019 as executive chairman, and Jason Williams, Geertz’s longtime creative partner, and CCO at Leo’s Australia.

Mary Bishop, one of her first bosses in Chicago, Susie Henry, longtime executive PA, and finally her parents, farmers in the US.

“They never preached or lectured. They just led by example, leading a life of hard work, kindness, intelligence, integrity and generosity.”

While the number of female executives and leaders in the Australian market has progressively grown, senior roles have traditionally been dominated by men.

Geertz hopes that during her time, she has been able to inspire the next generation of female leaders by breaking down some of the barriers that have been in place, to make it easier for women to lead and thrive in the industry.

As part of this, Geertz has led Publicis’ VivaWomen, an initiative put in place to help encourage positive change for the 1,000 plus women working for the French-owned holding group.

“I saw VivaWomen as a vehicle to create real and meaningful impact on the working lives of women in our group, not just a series of champagne networking events. We created a serious agenda, and we achieved a lot. We lost some momentum due to COVID last year, but we’re back and re-energised.”

She hopes that this work will be carried on through the program and offers some advice for women leaders, current and aspiring.

“Be there for each other. Use your collective power as a force for change and for good. Don’t be afraid to speak up when things aren’t right. And don’t fall for the “politically correct” accusation. There’s nothing “politically correct” about equality and respect. It’s just correct.”

In her final days at Leo’s, packing up her possessions she has gathered over the years, Geertz said she was able to indulge in a little nostalgia, in particular looking back on some of early Melbourne work.

“It was brave, original and always pushing the boundaries. Ideas like BYO Cup Day for 7-Eleven and ‘If it Exists’ for Seek feel fresh and progressive to this day.”

Creating a national Leos

Taking on the national role in 2017 and creating a united national agency was one of Geertz’ biggest challenges. This would mean combining the “more start-up minded” Melbourne, with the “big sister” in Sydney.

“When I took on the role, Sydney was in a period of change. We buckled down and won important new clients and we put in place ‘Creativity without Borders’ to bring us closer together as one national agency. It’s giving our clients the best of Leo’s, regardless of geography, and it’s given our people so much more opportunity and connectedness.”

Geertz hopes that her legacy at Leo’s remembers her as creating a space where people felt equal parts respected and inspired, where complacency never got too comfortable and everyone was free to create the best creative work of their career.

“I’d like to be remembered as a woman who changed entrenched views about diversity and equality in our industry and made ‘authenticity’ the norm. Not just because it was the right thing to do, but because it made us a better creative company.”

At the same time, while acknowledging that everyone, including herself makes mistakes, she said there is no value in looking back with regret.

“I’m tough on myself, so there are many things I wish I’d nailed that I didn’t. But I’d go crazy if I spent my time thinking about everything I should have or could have done. I had to get used to letting failures be part of the drill of life and leadership, and I’ve learned to be reflective, not regretful.”

Geertz, in her first year at Leo Burnett, 1983

“It’s probably enough to just be remembered as a good, decent human being who worked hard and helped create some really great ideas. I’ll take that.”

Entering the pandemic 

2020 was a tough year for everyone, and for Leo Burnett, it included losing long-time Melbourne clients 7-Eleven and Bonds. Though Geertz said that during the pandemic, which was particularly tough in 2020 for the Melbourne contingent, focusing on health and people was the main priority, and something she is proud of.

“I wasn’t a hero for doing what was so obviously needed – and that was to focus entirely on our people and our clients: communicating openly, being there, speaking honestly, digging deep, taking one day at a time. And doing everything possible to give the agency new opportunities to counter the business impacts of COVID. New business came flying in later in the year and has continued unabated, which has given us such incredible energy and momentum coming out of 2020. I’ve been focused on growth…and I’m grateful for the opportunities.”

Growing up on a farm in Iowa with five sisters meant working in adland was not always the writing on the wall, though Geertz said that while she considered everything from journalism, the film industry, politics, social justice work, and arts management, it was ultimately advertising that could offer her work and experience across so many different sectors.

“There aren’t many careers that have that breadth.”

On where she may have fit well otherwise, Geertz said there was one role (or two) that would have been suited to her skillset.

“I did think working in the Obama White House would have been a dream job. And I’d be happy to take charge of the vaccine rollout right now.”

Of the campaigns Geertz has overseen, she feels most proud of the ones that centre around the issues of diversity and inclusion, which she speaks so passionately about. Of those mentioned below, she says they were all “fresh, brave, rewarding and impactful.”

Highlights include:

Vote Yes, ‘Marriage Equality’
Bonds, ‘Queendom’, ‘Out Now’ and ‘Unplugged’

Headspace, ‘Reword’

Scope, ‘See the Person’, which was the recipient of a Cannes Grand Prix award.

While she makes personal changes, the industry also continues to change. I asked Geertz her thoughts on the ongoing debate surrounding pitching.

The ‘but’ when it comes to pitching 

“I love a good pitch. It’s exhilarating and can give us a short, sharp burst of energy. But…and this is a big but…we’ve fallen into a trap of giving away our incredible expertise, thinking and creativity for nothing. It’s problematic, and it simply won’t change if the whole industry doesn’t line up together and take a stand. We’ve talked about this for years and have made little progress. It’s institutionalised behaviour – with clients and agencies.”

While it is common for some to suggest an issue and forgo offering a solution, Geertz does have one to give.

“I’ve only been a client once or twice. I hired a designer/architect 20 years ago when I was creating a new office in Melbourne. I’d never done that before, and it was tempting to call a ‘pitch’…because that’s what a client does.”

“Instead, I reviewed portfolios, shortlisted from that, then had some great in-depth conversations with the designers – about their work, their views on design, their initial thoughts about my brief, and their instincts about our culture. I felt completely confident in making the decision for a ‘partner’ from that process. I could see the talent, there was proof of capability and delivery (from prior experiences), we were aligned in values and perspectives, and we committed to a budget from day 1. It worked brilliantly. Maybe there are some clues from that experience.”

What’s next – there will be a next 

Geertz says that the timing on leaving comes following a combination of factors, and now seems the right time for a break. While many often use time between roles to take extended breaks, she has never had this luxury.

“No question, COVID played some role in the timing. Many of us needed a circuit breaker after such an intense and brutal experience. I lost my sister to COVID, which was devastating, and I couldn’t be there to grieve. So I definitely want time to focus on family.”

What’s next will be a trip back home, however, this is not a permanent move.

“I’ve been given an exemption to travel to the US for a few months to be with my 96-year-old mom and 100-year-old dad (freaks, I know!) on the farm, and this is where I want and need to be for the moment.”

While it may be the end of Geertz’s time at Leo Burnett, it is not the end of her career.

“Assuming I can get back to Australia (which isn’t going to be easy), I’ll start dreaming about what’s next. That’s exciting and terrifying. I’m not hanging up my boots yet.”


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