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Agency of the Year 2015: Leo Burnett

A new business approach, a bold new philosophy and an Emmy cap a great year


It is Saturday, Sept. 12, 2015. Inside the 7,100-seat Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles, the 67th Creative Emmy Awards honouring technical disciplines and behind-the-scenes personnel in TV are approaching the two-hour mark when So You Think You Can Dance host Cat Deely strides out to present the Outstanding Commercial award.

It is a competitive category, featuring several high-profile spots including Gatorade’s “Made in NY” ad celebrating the career of legendary New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter, as well as a trio of Super Bowl ads, including the Snickers “Brady Bunch” spot, Budweiser’s “Lost Dog,” and Nissan’s “With Dad.”

Amid all of this testosterone is a spot for P&G’s Always, which seven months earlier became the first feminine hygiene brand to be featured in the Super Bowl. The ad made a favourable impression on viewers too, scoring an impressive 7.1 on USA Today’s Ad Meter, second only to “Lost Dog,” which received an average score of 8.1.

A collaboration between teams from Leo Burnett Worldwide’s Chicago, London and Toronto offices, “#LikeAGirl” has attracted more than 85 million views, 4.6 billion impressions and one million shares worldwide since its June 2014 debut.

The ad also had a profound impact on the attitudes of its target audience. Prior to watching the spot, fewer than one fifth (19%) of girls 16-24 had a positive association toward the phrase “like a girl.” After watching, 76% said they no longer viewed the phrase negatively. In addition, two thirds of men who watched it said they would think twice before using the expression “like a girl” as an insult.

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Its 2015 Toronto-led sequel “#Unstoppable” (more on that later) garnered more than 19.6 million global views, 1.6 billion impressions and more than 700 media placements in North America.
Both campaigns have transcended their origins as mere “advertisement,” joining the likes of Dove’s “Campaign for Real Beauty” as a commentary on today’s societal standards.

The Emmy-nominated #LikeAGirl is among a rash of socially relevant and compelling work produced by Leo Burnett for brands, including Kellogg Canada (the “#OwnIt” campaign for Special K), the Ontario Women’s Directorate (the powerful “#WhoWillYouHelp” campaign, which featured men in the act of sexually harassing women thanking bystanders for remaining silent) and Raising the Roof (a piece of stunt marketing that made residents of an affluent Toronto neighbourhood believe a homeless shelter was being built in the area).

“We had a pretty good year in pushing different levers for different clients,” says Judy John, CEO and chief creative officer for Leo Burnett Toronto. “For a lot of clients we’re pushing different buttons to get people thinking about the brand in a different way.”

The work – along with lighter campaigns for the likes of IKEA and TSN – is a manifestation of Leo’s approximately four-year-old “One Team. One Dream” approach, which uses teams comprised of creative, planning and account leads to develop media-agnostic ideas. Sure the name sounds cheesier than a fromagerie, but John says it has had a profound impact on the work being produced for clients.

“They’re accountable for the work, and if the work’s not good, or it’s great, all three are responsible for that,” she says. “So it’s not [a case of] ‘That’s not what I do.’”

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Clients have taken notice of this philosophy. Doug Milne, vice-president of marketing within TD’s Wealth, Business Banking & Auto Finance unit, has seen agency-wide engagement with his work and appreciates the breadth of skills that come to bear on his briefs. “From Judy all the way down to the most junior team member, they are one of the most responsive and accessible teams I’ve worked with,” Milne says. He’s notably impressed at the level of strategic planning “on even the smallest program. The planning group is not brought out on special occasions – they are a permanent fixture in our day-to-day working teams. Their strategic dissection of each project ensures the best thinking is baked-in at the outset to ensure we achieve the best outcome.”
John puts it succinctly: “We are stronger as a team than we are as individuals. Together we can do anything.”

Which brings us back to L.A., where Deely has just announced “#LikeAGirl” as the Emmy winner, the latest in a series of accolades for the spot – including the Cannes Grand Prix, D&AD Black, Yellow and Graphite Pencils and Marketing Awards Best of Show – which has by now earned hardware from award shows around the globe.

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Making her way to the stage, arm-in-arm with “#LikeAGirl” director Lauren Greenfield, John’s expression is a combination of elation and bewilderment. “This,” she tells the crowd after accepting the Emmy, “is amazing.”

The clock that will soon signal the end of perhaps the biggest moment of her professional career has already begun its inexorable countdown to zero as John continues.

“I want to thank the millions of people, teachers, parents, girls, women who contributed and sent in photos and stories of what they do ‘Like a girl,’ and they’re changing the meaning of what it means to do something like a girl,” says John as the crowd applauds.

She goes on to acknowledge P&G and her husband and daughter before the theme music from The Office begins to swell, signalling that it’s time to wrap things up.

Four months later and 3,500 kilometres away from L.A., John is sitting in her downtown Toronto office. It’s a drab Monday morning in late January, sun fighting a mostly losing battle to peek through slate-grey clouds, and she is still recovering from a nasty flu bug that has been making its way through the office (“I think I’ve got DayQuil brain,” she says as she struggles to recall a piece of information).

Right now, she’s recounting the “surreal” Emmy experience, from taking photos on the red carpet with former Glee star Jane Lynch to the moments that followed Deely announcing the agency’s Emmy win.

“I made a speech, but I don’t know what I said,” says John. “I just remember seeing the clock counting down and having only so many seconds until the music started. I was having an out-of-body experience.”

Inside Agency of the Year

The Emmy win is one of many highlights from a truly spectacular 2015 for John and the rest of Leo Burnett team. It was a year that included a boatload of national and international awards – including Canada’s first-ever Titanium Lion in Cannes – and new business wins including the Ontario Women’s Directorate, Yellow Pages Caribbean and Metrolinks Union Pearson Express that contributed to an 80% success rate in pitches.

There were also key new hires, including Titanium-winning group CD Fernando Hernandez from Leo’s Bogota, Columbia office; standout work for clients from a variety of sectors; and topline revenue growth of 2% in a difficult time for ad agencies.

“Our goal every year is to be the No. 1 agency in the country, but also be top 10 in the world,” says John. “It’s not just looking within Canada and making sure we’re doing great work here – we want to be considered one of the best in the world as well.”

Well, consider Leo Burnett Toronto at least halfway toward that goal, having now collected one final award for 2015 – Marketing’s Agency of the Year. It is the second time in four years Leo has captured the honour (it also won in 2012), which speaks to both its remarkable consistency and continued drive to push the boundaries of what constitutes “advertising.”

“I think Leo Burnett Toronto has done some of the more iconic work in the Canadian marketplace over the last few years,” says Chris Bell, vice-president of marketing for Kellogg Canada. “They set the bar high, and keep reaching for it and beyond.”

While there is no denying #LikeAGirl’s phenomenal success, it also overshadowed a spate of best-in-class work for clients – including “#LikeAGirl” sequel #Unstoppable – that was wholly original, attention-getting and socially relevant.

John laughs when asked about the difficulty of following up a spot such as #LikeAGirl, likening it to the task George Lucas must have faced in crafting a follow-up to the first Star Wars movie.
“We did rounds and rounds of work to have lightning strike again,” says John of the painstaking evolution of “#Unstoppable.” “It had a tough job. It’s such a beautiful film in its own right, but like Star Wars, the first one comes out and blows everybody away, but now everybody knows what the story is.

“If you deviate too much, people think ‘That’s not Always,’ so the follow-up is really hard to do.”

Mercifully, there is no Jar Jar Binks equivalent in “#Unstoppable.” Instead, the campaign features young girls literally kicking aside misconceptions of their abilities, such as “Can’t be brave,” or “Can’t be a sports broadcaster.”

Elsewhere, the Kellogg Canada #OwnIt campaign was at the forefront of the company’s attempt to transform the half-century old Special K brand from a one-dimensional diet brand into a female-friendly wellness brand emphasizing empowerment over imperfections.

The subsequent campaign utilized a multi-media approach that celebrated “real” women through ads containing messages like “I’ll never be petite. I’m too busy being strong,” and “I inherited the flat chest. I earned the flat stomach.”

“We love ‘#OwnIt,’ as do our Canadian consumers,” says Bell. The upshot of the campaign, he says, has been lots of views and sharing (YouTube views of the ad were more than 400,000 in the first week alone) and overwhelmingly positive sentiment on social media. Women even took the time to call the Kellogg call centre to express their approval of the message it delivered. Only 4% of the literally thousands of messages that Kellogg received about the ad on social media were negative — virtually unheard of for a CPG campaign.

Just as importantly, post-tracking results showed what he describes as “significant improvement” on brand impressions and key positive messages resonating with the target. “We have also seen an improvement where it counts most – in market,” says Bell. “As with many good ideas, they become great ideas with great execution.”

But while Leo’s awards show success and high-calibre work were enough to make it a front-runner for Agency of the Year accolades, the shop also checked off all of the other benchmarks for success in a Canadian industry that appears to be operating at a uniformly high level.
Revenues are up 2% year-over-year (and 26% over the past three years), while its staff count has increased to 240 from 205 in August 2014, generated through a combination of new account wins and additional assignments from existing clients.

The hires include some key senior talent such as Hernandez – “an awesome CD and a great addition to our team,” says John – who previously led Colombia to its first-ever Grand Prix in the 2014 Cannes Health Lions and is overseeing the agency’s Kraft, Union-Pearson Express and LCBO accounts.

It has also hired former Cundari group CD Sean Ganann as its new digital CD, responsible for the Kellogg and Yellow Pages business, along with Matthew Nelson to the newly created position of director of digital innovation.

Nelson’s is a key role for an agency that remains committed to the new and different. “We love doing things that have never been done before,” says John. “Whenever I see an idea and the team says ‘I don’t think this has been done before,’ I always think ‘Let’s do it.’ Having someone like Matthew Nelson here is going to help push that even further.”

Earlier this year, Leo Burnett Worldwide topped the 2015 Gunn Report’s All Gunns Blazing category – which ranks agencies on their ability to present integrated thinking on a global scale – for the seventh time in eight years.

It was also ranked the number-two creative network in the world, up from number-three in 2014, while #LikeAGirl was the most awarded campaign across all categories.
Gunn Report founder Donald Gunn called it “a fantastic display of creative excellence,” while the wins prompted global chief creative officer and creative chairman of Publicis Communications Mark Tutssel to remark: “Pound for pound, we are the strongest fighter in the ring.”

Spoken #LikeAChamp.

Agency of the Year – Top 3

Videographer: Michelle Turigan

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