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Uprising: Kelley Barrett on Fully Committed Creativity

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The Leo Burnett Chicago copywriter speaks to LBB’s Ben Conway about her creative journey from ‘Pappyland’ to Chicagoland and writing for ‘The Lost Class’

Uprising: Kelley Barrett on Fully Committed Creativity


People’s creative journeys can begin anywhere. Artistic inspiration is around every corner growing up - through the media, through art class at school, through friends and family...

For Kelly Barrett, now a copywriter at Leo Burnett Chicago, it can be traced back to one thing: ‘Pappyland’. Running on the PBS network during the ‘90s, Kelly describes the ‘Pappyland’ TV show as a “whimsical fever dream featuring an elderly man who lived in a magical cabin” - an art-focused show that encouraged children to draw and send in their art to be displayed during the end credits.

“This became my life’s goal. The only thing that mattered,” she says. “For weeks I tried to perfect one of my scribbled ‘masterpieces’ to send to the show. Then, one morning, there she was. For two seconds at 5:30am on a random local channel. I felt like I had won an Oscar. Like I had finally made it. Anyway, it turns out I wasn’t actually that great at drawing, but I would consider my morning trips to Pappyland some of my first attempts at creativity.”

When she wasn’t drawing, she could be found playing basketball - even, at one point, playing for multiple teams at the same time. However, a significant chunk of her time was spent watching as much comedic content as possible, working her way through ‘The Amanda Show’ and ‘All That’ before discovering more adult sketch shows like ‘MadTV’ and ‘SNL’ - which she remains obsessed with to this day.

Speaking about her Irish Catholic upbringing in Boston, she says, “I have a lot of guilt and also a lot of cousins. I come from a pretty big, tight-knit family and I’m so lucky that I got to grow up with them all around me. They are some of the funniest people I have ever met and I think a lot of my sense of humour comes from them.” 

Some of her most formative experiences as a teenager come from working at a Parks and Recreation department during high school and college. This job necessitated her to wear many hats throughout the year - from being a camp counsellor in the summer, to an archery instructor, T-Ball coach, swim teacher or birthday party coordinator in the off-season - and sometimes all four in the same weekend. She says, “I never fully knew what I’d be doing when I showed up, but I knew I needed to fake the fact that I absolutely knew what I was doing. Of all the random skills I gained during my time there, I think that one is the most transferable.” 

Kelly went on to major in English at college, initially setting out to become an English teacher, but her creative writing and screenwriting electives turned her attention to the creative field. Not aware of the advertising industry, she was advised to check out the Boston Ad Club, where she signed up for a creative concepting class and was exposed to iconic ads such as ‘Dumb Ways to Die’, Guinness’ ‘Surfer’, and Epuron’s ‘Mr. Wind’. “Immediately, I decided I wanted to do whatever this was,” she says. “The creative directors teaching the class talked about ‘portfolio school’ and I started doing some googling. I found the VCU Brandcenter and spent the next few months filling out the application at my job while no one was looking.”

After graduating from the VCU Brandcenter in May 2020 - a universally bad time to graduate from anywhere - Kelly and her partner, Katie DiNardo, were fortunate enough to get an interview at Leo Burnett with their now boss, Sam Shepherd. “We really admired Sam and his work and were so excited when we found out we’d get to work with him,” says Kelly. “He’s been a mentor to us since the very beginning and I’m super grateful to him.” 

After cutting her teeth on her early professional projects, such as writing radio ads for The Bank of America Roval 400 NASCAR race, she had the chance to work on a project that would change her career and subsequently inform the type of work she aspires to do: ‘The Lost Class’. 



‘The Lost Class’ is a campaign from Change the Ref, a gun safety organisation founded by Manuel and Patricia Oliver, in honour of their son, Joaquin who was murdered at the Parkland school shooting. For the campaign, Leo Burnett managed to get David Keene, former president and current board member of the NRA, and John Lott, American economist, political commentator, and gun rights advocate, to deliver commencement speeches to a graduating class of 3,044 empty chairs - representing the number of students who should have graduated high school in the US that year, but were killed in shootings.

“Working on ‘The Lost Class’ has impacted me in so many ways,” Kelley says. “Manuel and Patricia Oliver are two of the most inspiring people I have ever met. They’re not afraid to creatively confront, disrupt, or do whatever it takes to get their message across and they’re not going to stop until change is made.”

She continues, “We wanted to ensure whatever we did was not just highlighting the problem, but rather confronting it head-on. We couldn’t just show the empty chairs. We needed to show them to the people who helped make them empty. It’s impacted my career in terms of what I thought was actually possible to do and create. It’s one thing to have an idea but the execution is vital. The way Bryan Buckley and Hungry Man brought this idea to life was incredible and extremely eye-opening.” 

“Ultimately, it’s made me realise the importance of being on a creative team that’s willing to fully commit to something, no matter what.”

After this project, Kelley was recognised by the Cannes Lions Creativity Report as the ‘Copywriter of the Year’ - something that she expresses gratitude for, and even more so for the additional recognition that the Change the Ref movement has received as a result.

Besides winning awards and participating in groundbreaking projects like ‘The Lost Class’, Kelley is fulfilled in her work by the hunt for an insight or stat that can spark the best creative ideas. Simultaneously, she admits this is also the most challenging aspect of her work - alongside figuring out what gen z thinks is cool nowadays. 

Elaborating on her thoughts about the industry at large, she says, “Something that excites me is brands having more of a point of view and taking a stance on things. What frustrates me is when they do this, but don’t follow it up by putting their money where their mouth is. I think the next generation of consumers is pretty good at calling this out, so I’m hopeful it moves the work in the right direction.”

She adds, “Also, I think the industry could do a better job of explaining to me what the metaverse is.”

Besides figuring out what the metaverse is, Kelley’s free time is dedicated to expanding her knowledge base and relaxing whilst absorbing some new stories and information - never truly putting her ambitious insight-seeking brain to rest outside of work. “I love to read,” she says. “Mainly people’s memoirs… and I also love to pace really fast around the city while listening to my favourite podcasts: ‘Seek Treatment’ and ‘Las Culturistas’. Arguably, it’s this dedication to learning new things that has helped Kelley on her journey from Pappyland to Chicagoland, where she’s currently based with Leo Burnett.

She says, “I’ve been here for a couple of years and really love it. There’s so much comedy to hear, art to see and hot dogs to eat.” Here, her work and her passions converge, as Chicago provides no shortage of cultural offerings and opportunities for creative inspiration. She now looks ahead to writing on more projects that, like ‘The Lost Class’, will make an authentic impact on the world. 



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Leo Burnett Chicago , Mon, 24 Oct 2022 16:12:00 GMT