Leo Burnett was frequently asked by young people about how he got involved in advertising, and his answer was invariably: "I didn’t just happen to get into advertising, advertising got into me."
With a career spanning 56 years, Burnett’s achievements are innumerable. His early career saw him working for Cadillac in Detroit, for Lafayette Motors and Homer McKee Agency in Indianapolis and for Erwin Wasey & Company in Chicago. He started his own agency in 1935, at the depths of the Depression. He nurtured it, loved it and saw it grow into the fourth largest agency in the U.S. and the fifth largest in the world.
He developed a variety of advertising concepts, including the influential idea of "searching for the inherent drama" of the product. "You have to be noticed," he once said, "but the art is getting noticed naturally, without screaming and without tricks."
Burnett’s contributions to advertising were many, but an area that stands out was his involvement with the Advertising Council. He was on the board from its inception in 1942, when it was known as the War Advertising Council, until his death in 1971. At the end of WWII Burnett encouraged the continuation and growth of the Ad Council: "We haven’t solved all the country’s problems," he said, "nor is advertising even halfway up the prestige pedestal. I think we will be wise to keep on with our public service."
Burnett received many awards and worked tirelessly on many civic projects. He received honors for accomplishments in wartime advertising in 1945 and for work with the Freedoms Foundation in 1949. His book Good Citizen, published in 1947 by the American Heritage Foundation, was recognized in the latter award.
He directed the nonpartisan Register and Vote Campaign for the Advertising Council in both 1952 and 1956. In 1956 he was given the Special Merit Award by the New York Art Directors Club and was co-recipient of the Annual Gold Medal Award. In 1963 the University of Missouri bestowed upon him its Honor Award for Distinguished Service in Journalism, a citation Burnett particularly treasured.
He served the city of Chicago and its community in many ways. He was a member of the executive committee of the Committee for Economic & Cultural Development of Chicago, director of Hospital Planning Council for Metropolitan Chicago and a member of the National Advisory Council of the National Society of Crippled Children & Adults.
Richard B. Ogilvie, Governor of Illinois, wrote, "The death of Leo Burnett brings to mind how much the force of his personality and his directness of purpose contributed to public-service campaigns, and indeed, to the highest practice of the advertising art."
Leo was a leader in new advertising ideas, a great editor and an inspiration to his staff and to advertising generally. He was an exceptional disseminator of ideas about advertising and how it worked. Despite his monumental contributions to the advertising industry, Burnett still made time for public-service projects that needed a creative spirit behind them.