The CEO of Leo Burnett Canada and CCO of Leo Burnett North America on channeling creativity as a CEO, brands doing ‘good’ and starting work aged eight
Judy John got her first ever job at the age of eight, handing out menus in the restaurant that her parents opened after immigrating to Canada from China. At the age of 12 she was promoted, tasked with waiting tables, learning interaction skills vital to advertising along the way but mostly picking up on her parents’ inspiring work ethic and pride in what they did.
Fast forward to present day and Judy is the CEO at Leo Burnett Canada (she was previously the CCO for over a decade) and CCO for Leo Burnett North America. She has been with Leo Burnett for 18 years and was one of the driving forces behind Always’ 2015 #LikeAGirl campaign, which deservedly won that year’s Cannes Lions Titanium, Glass Lion and Grand Prix in PR, a D&AD Black Pencil and an Emmy for Outstanding Commercial.
LBB’s Addison Capper got to know her a little better.
LBB> You were the president of the creativity for good campaign at D&AD this year. I feel that nowadays so many campaigns can be defined like that. So how did you, as jury president, define it?
JJ> That’s a great question because ‘good’ is definitely a category that’s growing, as clients start to realise that having a positive impact is a positive impact for their brand as well. Something that’s good for people, good for society, good for the world or environment - that’s how I would define creativity for good.
LBB> But then there’s the risk of a brand doing ‘good’ just for the sake of it, and it has no connection to their brand…
JJ> Totally. It has to make sense for the brand - there has to be some kind of connection. And the other question that we have to ask ourselves is, what problem is it solving? Sometimes it feels like it’s gratuitous and not a real problem.
LBB> You worked on ‘Like a Girl’, which I think was one of the tipping points for this type of work. Did you ever expect it to have such an effect?
JJ> Oh no, not at all. When you create something like that, you want to do the right thing for the brand and you think it’s a very relevant conversation. And then you put it out in the world and you have no idea what people are going to latch onto. It was surprising how quickly it happened, we saw it right away on the first day. After three days we realised that it was really going.
LBB> You’ve been at Leo Burnett for 18 years, which is a long time in advertising! What is it about the agency that’s made you stick around?
JJ> When I went to Burnett I definitely didn’t think I was going to be here that long. I thought I’d be there for a good time, but not a long time - and I think a lot of people have that philosophy around agencies. You want to work somewhere fun, and that’s good for you and good for the work. But my job at the agency has changed, the business has changed, and I love the people I work with and the culture. As long as I continue to grow and evolve, I’m happy to be there.
LBB> As you mention, your role changed a few years back from being the CCO to the CEO of Leo Burnett Canada. How do you channel your creative background in your role as CEO?
JJ> I wish more creative people were CEOs and you can see why at a lot of independent,s the creatives are really at the heart of them. We think about how to structure, how to process differently and I think that we are more open to risk. Also, there are way more creatives now at the agency, in terms of the ratio, than there were in the past. And then there are just little decisions you make along the way, how you work and who you hire really impacts the culture and creativity at the heart of the agency.
LBB> I read online that you began working at eight and were waiting tables at 12…
JJ> Yes, welcome to the Chinese work ethic!
LBB> What lessons did you learn from those experiences that have stayed with you today?
JJ> So at eight years old you only hand out menus, by 12 you can wait tables. It’s very much a people business and it’s all about interaction. But working at such a young age and watching my parents work so hard really taught me about work ethic and having pride in what you do and working really hard to be good at it.
LBB> And then from there, how did you end up in advertising?
JJ> I always loved advertising. Because my parents worked so much, the television was our babysitter and I loved watching the commercials.
LBB> How do you see the Canadian advertising industry at the moment?
JJ> I think it’s in a healthy state. It’s about creativity driving a market like Canada because we’re a small country. We’re a 10th of the size of the US. In order to keep the talent and keep us from becoming a brand plant country, we need creativity and to be producing work that clients see is important and gets exported. That’s one thing I’m really proud of with Leo Burnett, we create a lot of work that gets exported into other countries.
LBB> Do you think there’s somewhat of an underdog spirit in Canada?
JJ> We are an underdog, we’re like the smaller sibling. I think Canada suffered from having an inferiority complex for a while, and then you realise that we’re scrappier, we can get stuff done quicker. We have to use our size to our advantage.
LBB> What are the best and worst things about advertising today?
JJ> If you look at them side-by-side, the worst thing is the importance of data and the best thing is the importance of data. There’s so much talk about it, so how can you not talk about it? But you can’t take the creativity out of the data. There’s so much focus on data that we’re starting to lose sight. Data is in the service of unlocking and finding relevant info into where the idea is.
LBB> Which recent pieces of work from Leo Burnett Canada have you been most proud of?
JJ> I think we’re making it now. But the last thing we did that I was really proud of was IKEA ‘cook this page’. That was a labour of love. The idea happened quickly but it took a long time to execute.
LBB> What do you like to get up to when you’re not working?
JJ> I like sleeping! I watch a lot of Netflix. And I like to do things I don’t normally do and hang around places I don’t usually go to, because I like to watch humanity.