Jim McKenzie

Those who know him best weren't surprised when he chose to officially announce his retirement from Leo Burnett Toronto with an understated memo containing fewer than 100 unpretentious words - nearly half of them praising his colleagues.

Those who know him best weren’t surprised when he chose to officially announce his retirement from Leo Burnett Toronto with an understated memo containing fewer than 100 unpretentious words – nearly half of them praising his colleagues.

As of April 15, at 57 years of age, the ‘buttoned-up Scot with the twinkle in his eye,’ as a friend describes him, will drop the two briefcases he’s habitually hauled home every night, and head out to who-knows-where.

Behind him will be 28 remarkable, unbroken years at one of the world’s premier advertising agencies, the last decade as president and CEO. That makes McKenzie the longest-serving top boss in the Toronto agency’s 53-year history and, according to more than a few admirers, arguably its best ever.

When strategy invited a veritable who’s who of marketing leaders to comment on McKenzie’s departure, the accolades that came flying (see sidebar) went a long way toward explaining how he accomplished such unprecedented longevity in an industry where fruit-flies have a higher life expectancy than management bigwigs.

To survive and thrive for nearly three decades, McKenzie must have done something right. In fact, the overwhelming consensus is that he’s done a lot of somethings right. Bottom line? He’s been exactly the right person in exactly the right place at exactly the right time.

And that’s an irony, says McKenzie in his distinctive, gravelly voice, because his original career plan was to stay in advertising for only a snappy three or four years before returning whence he came.

‘My first job was in sales at Procter & Gamble,’ he recalls. ‘I liked what the company represented, but [did not like] being on the sales side, so I went into brand management with Sterling Drug.

‘Then I realized that when you’re in a business where advertising is a big driver of your volume, the relationship with your agency is really important to your success. So I came up with this well thought-out plan to understand advertising and agencies better. I joined Leo Burnett in 1977, thinking that I’d stay there for only as long as it took to learn what I needed, and then take those skills back to the client side.’

That never happened, says McKenzie, ‘because I just loved being in advertising. I woke up one day and realized I hadn’t thought about my master plan in months, if not years. And that said to me that I had found the right place, so I stayed.’

But there was more than affinity and enthusiasm involved in McKenzie’s decision to stay put. Like so many other Burnetters, he says he got hooked on the humane corporate culture that had become legendary since Leo Burnett himself set it in motion back in 1935. ‘There is an aura to this company, and I just mainlined it – hook, line and sinker.’

By all accounts, the chief characteristic of this aura is integrity and abiding respect for both clients and Burnett personnel. And that’s why Tony Altilia, president/CEO of Toronto’s Downtown Partners – among others – believes that ‘Jim embodies the culture and operating principles of Leo Burnett in a big way. He’s been the custodian of its ethics and he’s done a wonderful job of endowing the culture of Burnett Toronto with everything that Leo stood for.’

Consistent with Burnett’s commitment to integrity is the fact that it is a meritocracy, as McKenzie soon learned when he zoomed from account executive to account director in only three years. He was boosted to director of client services in 1985, and then tapped for the CEO spot in 1994.

McKenzie hit the ground running. Within a year of stepping into the presidential shoes, he had guided the Toronto operation so masterfully that it snagged Leo Burnett’s Global Agency of the Year status, and then repeated the feat in 1997. Many more prestigious awards followed between then and 2004, when Toronto was named Leo Burnett’s Rising Star Agency.

To put those lofty milestones into perspective, consider that in the multinational behemoth that is Leo Burnett, the Toronto shop competes with more than 200 other agencies around the world.

What makes McKenzie so good at his job? Kerry Rubie, former Burnett Toronto CEO, who recruited him in the first place, offers one key.

‘Jim was crucial in transforming our agency from one that was very much involved in the upstream processes of planning and strategic development into one that placed creative product as the most important contribution any agency could make. He always understood that ideas were what we’re all about, and that if we ever forgot it, we’d lose our way.’

However, emphasizing the creative side certainly didn’t mean disregarding other facets of the business, especially client management, at which many colleagues declare McKenzie something of a genius.

The observation is backed by the astounding fact that, in an industry where average client retention now stands at less than five years, Burnett Toronto’s rate is 21 years, as David Moore – McKenzie’s designated successor as CEO – points out. And that, Moore adds, is ‘one of the real legacies Jim is leaving. He’s a consummate professional who really took the time to forge personal friendships with longtime clients like Visa, Wrigley and Kellogg’s.

‘The result is an incredibly strong agency with very strong and deep relationships with its core clients. Yet we were just told that [the Chicago HQ] has rated us the third-highest Burnett office in the global network for creative product over the past year.’

Such double-faceted success proves that McKenzie ‘is incredibly astute, both strategically and creatively. And that’s a rare combination at his level, where people are more likely to be better at one or the other,’ explains Margaret Arnold, SVP/director of operations and human resources at Burnett Toronto.

As the years rolled on and advertising methodologies evolved, Rubie says McKenzie was always ahead of the curve. ‘He was one of the first management guys at Leo Burnett globally who recognized the importance of holistic communications. And he very quickly embraced the concept of making the connection between a brand and its ultimate consumers by using a variety of media.’

Says Arnold: ‘Jim marshaled…creative, account management, planning and media into cohesive multi-disciplined brand teams that intuitively and intrinsically know the client’s business.’

So what’s McKenzie likely to be best remembered for? Probably all of the above. But for some, it’s bound to be his leadership expertise, which has inspired such loyalty that folks who come to Leo Burnett seldom flit off to the proverbial greener pastures.

‘I would label it unprecedented talent retention,’ says Stefan Danis, CEO/chief talent officer at Toronto’s Mandrake executive recruitment. ‘They have more people who’ve been there longer than virtually all other agencies in the city, and that’s a testament to practising good values internally.’

For others, McKenzie’s primary legacy will be the remarkably thoughtful and seamless transition he orchestrated over the past year to usher in Moore as his successor. ‘In an industry where transition planning is generally quite poor,’ says Moore, ‘Jim has put everything in place to make sure it will be very non-disruptive to our clients.’

For some, though, the hands-down favourite memory will be the quirky creative streak that inspired McKenzie to rustle up a truly unique parade in 1989, when the agency moved from its longtime University Avenue digs to a sophisticated Bloor Street tower.

Marching along the two-mile downtown route with a Scottish piper in the lead were not just Leo Burnett staffers, but all of its signature icons – the Jolly Green Giant, the Pillsbury Doughboy, the Marlboro Man, Kellogg’s Tony the Tiger, the Maytag Repair Man, Star-Kist’s Charlie the Tuna, and Nine Lives’ Morris the Cat.

A final thought. No one came right out and told strategy that Jim McKenzie might actually be the reincarnation of Leo Burnett himself, but there certainly seemed to be allusions to that effect lurking in the heartfelt sentiments. Many were indistinguishable from what people still say about the beloved agency founder, who died six years before McKenzie joined Burnett.

In fact, McKenzie came very close to applying the most famous Leoism of all to himself: ‘I didn’t get into advertising, advertising got into me.’

What McKenzie did conclude for the record is that ‘I have always felt I was working for something bigger than just the current job and the current set of teams. There was an overarching higher thing that I felt I was involved in. And that’s pretty special.’


Age: 57

Career path: sales at Procter & Gamble and Sterling Drugs for four years; Leo Burnett for 28 years, president/CEO for last decade

Family: wife Heather, elementary schoolteacher; daughters Sarah, now at Ogilvy & Mather New York, and Kirsty, soon graduating in fashion design in Rhode Island

Personal style: used to favour bowties and suspenders, now dresses less expressively but retains his beloved mustache; regrets casual business-garb trend, but would never issue an executive edict forbidding it

Why he loves golf: ‘Because it’s not easy. It humbles you because your skill comes and goes very capriciously, which is why after playing golf most of my life, I started taking lessons again when my handicap went from 13 to 18. I just refuse to be beaten.’

Pet peeves: any demonstration of disrespect for other human beings, but number one is people who yak loudly on their cellphones; number two is the imposition of green recycling bins ‘that you have to keep manufacturing garbage for so your neighbours won’t rat you out.’

Others say this as well.


Tim Penner, president, Procter & Gamble Canada:

Jim has an exceptionally sharp strategic mind for marketing problems, and an uncanny ability to cut through the crap and get to the real heart of a business problem. He has led Leo’s Toronto office with a caring touch, building a unique culture of loyal, dedicated employees. He is living proof that nice guys can, indeed, finish first.

Rupert Brendon, president, Institute of Communications and Advertising, Toronto:

He’s a thoughtful, careful person who thinks issues through before coming to a conclusion, and I think that probably accounts for a lot of his longevity. He’s grown the business accordingly, by considering things very carefully and making the right strategic choices.

Tony Altilia, president/CEO, Downtown Partners, Toronto:

If there was ever an issue where ethics were involved – should we or shouldn’t we do this? – he always opted to do the right thing and the honest thing regardless of its effect on the agency.

Tony Houghton, former president, Leo Burnett Toronto

He was an ideal guy to work with and to pass the reins to. He can be as tough as necessary but he’s essentially a kind man, which, I think, all good managers are. His management style is sensible and practical – let’s get on with the job and let’s have fun doing it. He’s always very hands-on with clients, who had been kind of neglected by the previous management.

Tom Knowlton, Dean, Faculty of Business, Ryerson University, Toronto:

Jim isn’t one of these rah-rah, over-the-hill-with-me CEO types. But deep down, he’s a competitive guy, which you have to be to head up an organization of that size and stature. It’s unique in the consumer-products business for an advertising agency to be viewed with such respect, and so integrally involved in every detail of its clients’ marketing and business.

Sandra Sanderson, SVP marketing, Universal Studios Home Entertainment, Toronto

One of the marks of true greatness is the ability to develop greatness in others, and Jim really exemplifies that. He’s someone who builds a great team and then has the courage to let them do what they’re best at doing. He’s very genuine and truly cares about his employees as well as his clients. Even when I was a brand manager working on a smaller business, I always felt that he genuinely took an interest.

Margaret Arnold, SVP/director of operations and human resources, Leo Burnett Toronto:

He mentored me and a heck of a lot of other people, and taught us how to look at things and judge them. He also kept the candle burning for all these years on all the Leo icons and philosophies.

Heather McKenzie (Jim’s wife):

He’s always worked killer-killer-killer hours, so the thought of him retiring is scary. You don’t juggle this many balls in the air, and then all of a sudden stop. I think the first few months will be just fun, when we can finally do what we like. But then, I think Jim will probably find something else that won’t necessarily occupy his time to the extent Leo Burnett has, but give him some flexibility to travel, which is definitely something we want to do.