How an 88-year-old is remaining relevant in today’s adland

Leo Burnett's Sydney and Melbourne general managers, James Walker-Smith and Julia Sheehan, spoke to Mumbrella's Lauren McNamara on how they're evolving the creative agency's 'HumanKind' philosophy to solve modern marketing problems and prove the relevancy an 88-year-old has in today's modern landscape.

In 1935, Leo Burnett took a risk and opened up shop in Chicago – against all sensible advice – in the middle of the deepest recession the world has known. 88 years later, the agency, now part of Publicis Groupe, has 85 offices globally and more than 8,000 employees.

As a pioneer in advertising, Burnett had a restless spirit and a commitment to doing the best work possible, James Walker-Smith, the agency’s Sydney general manager, tells Mumbrella. The same spirit and commitment he says continues today around the world.

With a philosophy of ‘HumanKind’ – which in essence is about people, purpose and changing behaviour – the creative agency strives to demonstrate how creativity harnesses the power of transformation.

It comes from something the founder said himself: “What helps people, helps business.”

The agency’s iconic logo, Burnett’s signature

Walker-Smith, who describes the proposition as “refreshingly simple”, claims that’s an overlooked reminder in adland, and advertisers often forget the role they play in bringing value to people through the work they do.

“It’s a privilege to put advertising out into the world, and we need to respect the intelligence and attention of our audiences,” he explains.

While the obvious ‘people’ focus is the audience, Julia Sheehan, Leo Burnett’s recently-promoted Melbourne general manager, argues the Leos team is equally as important to ensuring the continuation of the HumanKind attitude.

Leos is a place where people stay, and we think this helps make the work great,” she tells Mumbrella.

James and I have both been with Leos for more than seven years, and looking around us, this isn’t uncommon. Our average staff tenure is 4.5 years.”

While she jokes that what she says might sound cliché, working in an agency that has little ego, where people truly collaborate, and everyone’s voice is heard and valued, is why Sheehan has stayed for so many years.

The pursuit of creative excellence is grounded in delivering business results for our clients,” she comments.

“We don’t make junk work just to win awards, and we’re proud that the awards we win are for some of our biggest clients. And we’re fortunate that these very clients have bought into our philosophy, and not only that, want to genuinely make a positive impact on their consumers for more than just the products they may sell or the services they offer.”

James Walker-Smith and Julia Sheehan

The challenge for the agency, however, is remaining modern and relevant in today’s advertising landscape.

While it has the benefit of 88 years of “wisdom, learning and an inspiring back catalogue”, Sheehan argues the best way to live up to Leos’ philosophy, while also evolving, is by hiring the best minds, creating an environment where ideas can flourish, and consistently learning about what’s important to people.

Walker-Smith continues: “Of course, the context for how we do that continues to evolve as we work with new technologies, capabilities and marketplaces, so we’re certainly not standing still, even for a moment.”

Sheehan jokingly adds: “And frankly, standing still sounds pretty boring.”

Learning to work with new technology and adapting quickly is something any agency would be familiar with, and with the “unfair advantage” of a global agency network in Publicis Groupe, Walker-Smith says its easier to multiply the effectiveness of creativity.

“The Groupe gives us the ability to scale and curate models bespoke to fit the client and the market,” he tells Mumbrella. “It means we can quickly and easily supplement our core skill set with deeper expertise and capabilities, adapting to different circumstances and requirements.”

When Leos gets the chance to work with other Publicis Groupe agencies on a client, he says it’s “one seamless, connected platform”. One conversation, one strategy, one creative platform, “rather than competing agendas, strategies and operations”.

Despite this, Leos has been feeling the cost-of-living pinch much like any other agency, with marketing budgets often the first to be reduced or cut significantly.

“We’re constantly being challenged to do more for less,” Sheehan tells Mumbrella.

“[It’s] tricky at a business level, but inspiring creatively. So much of the work this industry makes is ‘safe’, even forgettable.”

Three months into the general manager gig, she says the market conditions have been the biggest challenge.

“But we know this is just a moment in time, and if Leo can build a successful agency during the great depression, we can help it continue to flourish even in the demanding moments of 2024,” she comments.

Optimistically, she says the upside of reduced budgets is “simply more focus and better discussion on how brands can be memorable”. While some say this might be brave, or risky, she argues it’s informed and intelligent.

Not only does the agency need to ensure its clients are memorable to audiences, Leos itself needs to be, too. In an increasingly saturated world of creative agencies, Walker-Smith says the key to being different, and therefore memorable, is… “No arseholes.”

“Seriously,” he continues, “We put our heads down and focus on the work.

“We try to bring humility, authenticity and fun to every day. We want to partner with clients, not sell them ideas. We want to make work that works, and winning awards is just the cherry on top.”

Sheehan adds that the agency is not defined by a particular type of work, and that the work is as diverse as its client list.

“…from running a wedding for and designed by Bundy adorers, building a house for Suncorp or getting a car to talk for Honda. We create solutions that solve problems rather than simply fill a space.”

The ‘Bundy wedding’

2024 marks a year of change and momentum for the agency, according to Walker-Smith. While Leos will continue to “do what [it’s] always done”, he says a big focus is building and contributing to Publicis Groupe’s connected platform and creating more “cut-through work”.

The agency’s new Australian CEO, Clare Pickens, starts this month, while a new group creative director will be joining the Melbourne team mid-month. He also teases new clients wins, to be announced shortly.

“With Clare’s experience and creative pedigree, combined with our tight-knit leadership team and deep creative firepower, we’re excited to make the next 12-18 months some of our best yet,” Walker-Smith concludes.


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