PROFILE: Thompson sells Leo Burnett on the benefits of PR

At Leo Burnett, Julie Thompson, SVP and director of corporate affairs, worldwide, uses PR to show prospective clients that the advertising agency is keeping pace with the times.

At Leo Burnett, Julie Thompson, SVP and director of corporate affairs, worldwide, uses PR to show prospective clients that the advertising agency is keeping pace with the times.

Julie Thompson spent her early PR days talking her way into jobs she didn't know much about and likely was a bit underqualified for. But times have definitely changed for this 39-year-old. Since 1998, Thompson has taken on the challenge of doing PR for ad agencies. She worked for Fallon Worldwide, Minneapolis, from April 1998 through November 2001. She then took on her present job as SVP and director of corporate affairs, worldwide, at venerable Chicago ad agency Leo Burnett. Doing PR for ad mavens might seem like trying to sell electric cars to oil companies, but Thompson says she's been fortunate - senior executives at both agencies have grasped the power of PR. Burnett, which was bought by Publicis in 2002, is trying to change its image. For years it was known as a folksy Midwest agency that built its reputation on cute characters like Tony the Tiger. As the ad industry has consolidated and looked for new ways to reach jaded consumers, Burnett seemed to be left behind, say ad-business journalists. Thompson's mission is to show Burnett is changing with the times, seeking out new approaches that go beyond traditional mass-marketing advertising. "My job is to get more business for the firm," she says. If anyone can help Burnett get its message out, say those who watch the ad world, it's Thompson. "She's definitely one of the best," says Stefano Hatfield, a former editorial director at Advertising Age and now editor of Metro in New York. "When you talk to her, you know she'll be listened to. She has senior management's ear." Not bad for an English major who returned to her native Chicago after graduating from Boston College in 1987 convinced she wanted a filmmaking career. While checking out job postings, Thompson heard about a paid internship at Bozell Worldwide, which in those days had a PR operation in Chicago. "Through persistence, I stumbled into the profession," recalls the kinetic Thompson. She basically talked her way into the Bozell job, even after showing up hours late for an interview because a roommate had garbled a message. "Julie's always had this enthusiasm and high energy level," recalls Barb Molotsky, her boss at Bozell. Thompson stayed at Bozell for four years. Her accounts included grill maker Weber and Harley-Davidson. After a stint at Ruder Finn's Chicago office, Thompson took on the massive task of changing the city's image for the 1996 Democratic convention. Politicos had shunned Chicago for national conventions since the bloody days of the '68 Democratic gathering. A high-school friend of Thompson's was working for Chicago's mayor and recruiting people to work on the convention host committee. While scores of political veterans wanted the job, she asked Thompson because she wanted someone who could sell the city rather than get involved in partisan politics. "I sold myself on the fact I didn't have the political baggage others did," recalls Thompson. "It was amazing, crazy, hectic, seven days a week - I loved it." The city received vast favorable coverage for the convention, and Thompson and her friend went on to start their own firm, Fox & Thompson. Starting with three clients and three staffers, the firm had nine clients and six employees, and was profitable after only three months, Thompson recalls. Hill & Knowlton bought the firm in 2000, but Thompson had left by then, anxious to focus on one client, not scores of them as she had been doing. But finding a company she could work for wasn't easy. Thompson knew she wouldn't fit into a sterile, straight-laced corporate office. Even today she shows that independence. She had her Burnett office painted a neon-ish green when she moved in - she wanted something brighter than traditional office gray or white. "I pride myself on being non-corporate," she says. When Thompson heard about a PR post at Fallon, she thought working with creative ad types would be as far from the buttoned-down corporate world as she could get, so she took the job and moved to the Twin Cities. There, she regularly commuted to Fallon's New York office, a habit she continues at Burnett, where she's in New York at least once a month. When a recruiter first raised the possibility of joining Burnett, Thompson was hesitant. She recognized Burnett as a pillar of the Chicago business community for almost 70 years. But asked by the recruiter what Burnett reminded her of, she said a trench coat - solid and dependable, but not very flashy. As she did some research, though, a different image emerged. "I knew they were the Altoids agency, so I knew there was hope," Thompson says. Altoids made a splash in the US with non-traditional ads, something Thompson knew would become more important as mass-market ads faded from the scene. She also liked Burnett's senior management. "Management's [openness] was refreshing. They do put PR at the table. I have the best job in the business because Burnett believes in PR," she says. Indeed, Thompson recently was named to the board of directors of Leo Burnett USA. "That's an amazing vote of confidence - not just in me, but in our function," Thompson says. Cheryl Berman, chairman and chief creative officer for Leo Burnett North America, says of Thompson, "We think her role is very important as a steward of brands. We respect her judgment." Thompson has made changes in Burnett PR. The department had taken on party planning and other mundane functions before she came. She's tried to move away from that. She's also looked beyond the local and trade media to the national and international press. "My goal has been to widen the net of where we go with our news. It's more important for me to be on CNBC Europe than a month's worth of ad-trade coverage." These days, Thompson is constantly in motion. Her office boasts eight clocks, each for a different time zone where Burnett does business. Her average day is 10 to 11 hours, but she still finds time for fun things like seeing Madonna during a recent Chicago concert stop. "I love what I do," Thompson says. Her colleagues love what she does, too. Julie Thompson May 2002-present Leo Burnett Worldwide, Chicago, SVP, director of corporate affairs, worldwide April 1998 -November 2001 Fallon Worldwide, Minneapolis and New York City, worldwide comms director November 1996-January 1998 Fox & Thompson, Chicago, principal May 1995-October 1996 Chicago 1996 - Host committee for the DNC, comms director February 1992-April 1995 Ruder Finn, Chicago, assistant VP January 1988-February 1992 Bozell, Chicago, account supervisor

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