Lessons Learned From The Life of Leo Burnett

Unless you’re an advertising nerd you may have never heard of Leo Burnett. But you’ve heard his message countless times via one of his many successful advertising campaigns.

“Sorry, Charlie.”

“Fly the friendly skies.”


These phrases — and their associated ad campaigns — became famous around the world. All three (Starkist Tuna, United Airlines, Tony The Tiger and Kellogg’s) came from Leo Burnett and his advertising agency which helped change the way we look at advertising and marketing.

Content marketers are salespeople. We are the modern ad men (and ad women) — building our campaigns to attract audiences with the goal of converting them into customers. So there’s much we can learn from Leo Burnett, a legendary figure who dominated advertising for more than three decades until his death in 1971. His agency, Leo Burnett Worldwide Inc., is one of the largest and most successful advertising firms in the world.

Here — in his own words — are lessons from the late Leo Burnett. Apply them to your content marketing strategy.


“Plan the sale when you plan the ad.”

At the same time that you’re planning content you must be thinking about how it fits into the sales cycle. If you don’t know your client’s sales cycle, you better find out. For example, if the content is addressing a critical decision the customer makes during the buying process, make sure to offer a way for the customer to move to the next step, like picking a service plan or choosing a product model, etc.


“What helps people, helps business.”

Given the choice between telling your customer about features or benefits, choose benefits. Tell them how your product will help them, how it will make their lives easier, make them more efficient, and bring them more sales. Here’s Burnett at his most genius. This seems obvious to many of us, but Burnett was a pioneer in moving the conversation away from the product details and toward the customer’s needs.


“If you don’t get noticed, you don’t have anything. You just have to be noticed, but the art is in getting noticed naturally, without screaming or without tricks.”

We all want traffic, we all want people reading and experiencing our content. But there’s no secret formula for getting qualified traffic and conversions. You can’t “game the system” because the powers that be will penalize you, and more importantly the audience will see right through you. Find your voice and create content that’s consistent and genuine. That’s how you’ll gain attention in a natural way.


“The work of an advertising agency is warmly and immediately human. It deals with human needs, wants, dreams and hopes. Its ‘product’ cannot be turned out on an assembly line.”

There are no shortcuts to good content. If you take the creativity out of the creation process you’re doing it wrong. If you’re “ordering” content and manufacturing it to meet an arbitrary quota, you’re likely on the wrong track. Instead, foster an environment where people are creating content that matches a human need, not machines creating for machines.


“Advertising says to people, ‘Here’s what we’ve got. Here’s what it will do for you. Here’s how to get it.”

It’s surprising how often we forget to offer our customers a way to get what we’re trying to offer them. Make sure to include a clear action step in every piece of content, even if it’s to ask the reader to think about something or comment about it. Conversation leads to discussions and discussions lead to conversions.


“When you reach for the stars you may not quite get one, but you won’t come up with a handful of mud either.”

If you don’t set big goals you can’t achieve them. Don’t settle for being safe, stretch your imagination and take your clients along for the ride to the top fueled by your creativity. What Burnett’s saying is “you may not always reach the top, but you’ll end up higher than you started.”


“There is no such thing as a permanent advertising success.”

Trends in digital marketing come and go quickly. Technology improves and the rules of the game even change, often with drastic ramifications. Therefore, as Burnett tells us in this classic quote, we can’t rest on the success of one tactic or strategy. We also should never be satisfied with our client’s position in the marketplace. Things can change rapidly.