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Leo Burnett Toronto CEO Judy John takes on the advertising world ‘like a girl’

Judy John, CEO and CCO of Leo Burnett Toronto

Rachel Idzerda/The Globe and Mail

Judy John runs her agency like a girl.

If that seems like an insult, then you've grasped the concept that has led Leo Burnett Toronto's chief executive officer to her biggest creative success in an already lauded advertising career. In the past year, the campaign for Procter & Gamble's feminine care brand Always, "Like a Girl," has attracted more than 85 million views online, by challenging that phrase's derogatory connotations. Why can't doing something "like a girl" mean strong, competent, and self-possessed, rather than weak and inept? For Ms. John, running an agency like a girl means imposing as much or more creative rigour as any of her peers, and collecting a sizable hoard of industry prizes along the way.

Last week, the Always campaign earned a pile of statuettes at the Cannes Lions advertising festival – one of the most well-regarded award shows in the business – adding to honours from other prestigious industry fêtes, such as the Clios, the One Show, and D&AD. The online reception was so enthusiastic, that P&G decided to pile more money into the campaign: The company spent millions to buy airtime for a 60-second version of the video during the Super Bowl in February.

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"It was like lightning striking," she says, still battling jet lag at Focaccia, a small Italian restaurant near the Leo Burnett offices in Toronto, the day after returning from France.

Not only did the video touch a nerve, but it speaks to a wider movement in the industry. Much more advertising than ever before is attempting to pitch a message of female strength and competence – from brands including Nike, Pantene, Under Armour, Verizon and many others. Among the awards that "Like a Girl" won at Cannes was in a brand new category honouring ads that defy gender bias, called the Glass Lion.

These messages geared at girls and women are just one subset of an even larger trend, in which advertisers are trying to create more meaningful, socially conscious work. That can include vaccinating children who don't have full access to health care (as Rexall did), giving presents to a village full of people who can't afford to put packages under the Christmas tree (WestJet), or building a wheelchair ramp at the home of disabled woman (Toronto-Dominion Bank). It can also include advertisers that are taking pains to support causes such as equal rights for gay couples, and showing more diversity in their commercials.

It's a trend Ms. John noticed not just in the industry recognition for "Like a Girl," but across the festival. Ms. John was the only Canadian jury president at Cannes this year, and the first Canadian woman to get the job.

"There is a moment right now," Ms. John says. "When you look at the work that's winning, it moves people and touches people, and raises brands to a larger conversation."

It's important to make a connection with viewers, because more advertising is being done online. Nearly half of agency executives recently polled by Brightroll and the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) Canada, said that digital video is about as effective as television advertising; 21 per cent said it is more effective than TV. Since digital viewers can more easily skip over ads that do not interest them, advertisers need to make an impact – and that requires keen skills of observation to understand what matters to them.

"It's more important than ever to be interesting, or relevant, and say something or do something that will get people's attention. So you see more and more brands trying to figure out what that thing is. … That's great, versus 10 or 15 years ago, when we were just pushing out information – 'Buy this' – and not really wanting to be part of a conversation."

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The move to greater diversity is a welcome change, too, and it can be easy to forget just how different things were not that long ago. She recalls attempting to cast a mixed-race couple in a commercial for an unnamed client about a decade ago. It was a fraught conversation.

"Now you see it everywhere, which is great. That reflects the world," she says.

It's easy to be cynical about advertising such as this, since it is ultimately being done to increase profits. But advertising is part of what shapes popular culture. Just because the motives are business-related does not mean that the messages don't matter. P&G's post-campaign research on "Like a Girl" showed that 76 per cent of women surveyed in the target market – between 16 and 24 years of age – said the video had changed how they thought about the meaning of the phrase. Two-thirds of men surveyed said they would think twice before using the phrase as an insult. The agency received feedback from schools that were showing the video to students as a conversation starter.

Ms. John has been working with Always on the next phase of the campaign. The great challenge will be mining the idea for more success without seeming repetitive.

"Confidence in women and girls, specifically during puberty, it's just such a big thing – and with my daughter being 14, we're in the heart of it … ," she says. "We need to keep working at it. From a creative standpoint, that's the challenge, finding different ways to do it that are still interesting, and that girls will want to be a part of."

Ms. John ended up on the P&G business in the first place – even though the account is run out of Leo Burnett's Chicago and London offices, which shared in the awards – because she is part of the agency's global creative council. That means she is among the creative directors called in to work on projects where a new perspective might be needed.

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The position fits with her global reputation. Ms. John was named by Advertising Age magazine as one of the 50 most creative people of the year in 2014.

After stints at a number of agencies including Chiat/Day, Roche & Partners, BBDO, Taxi and Ogilvy, she joined Leo Burnett as chief creative officer in 1999, and was appointed CEO in 2011. Under her leadership, Leo Burnett Worldwide – part of ad agency holding company Publicis Groupe SA – named Leo Burnett Toronto its network agency of the year in 2011 and 2012. The Gunn Report – which ranks agencies based on awards they've won across a number of shows, and a well-regarded benchmark in the industry – ranks Leo Burnett Toronto highest in the Canadian market, and at 22 over all in the world. Ms. John wants the agency to crack the top 10.

That is perhaps why our lunch is a rarity for her – most often, she eats at her desk, typical of the industry's workaholic personalities. When she does go out, she is consistent. The waiter knows her order, the same one every time: an arugula salad to start and then penne with chicken in a tomato-cream sauce. She asks him whether she should try something new this time. In the end, she does not.

Her work ethic began at a young age. For 40 years, Ms. John's parents have run a Chinese restaurant called the Happy In – with one N – in Leamington, Ont., where she grew up. She began working in the family business at the age of eight, first handing out menus and later taking orders. Her two older brothers and younger sister also helped out. Her mother still works "60-hour weeks" at the restaurant, despite her children's entreaties to retire. Ms. John's father, who passed away a few years ago, worked similar hours.

Ms. John's interest in advertising began in high school, when she ran for the role of publicity director in student government. She won, and got her start in the ad business making posters for bake sales.

She went on to study film and theatre at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., but after two years, she dropped out.

"My parents were really upset with me. They said, 'Why don't you just finish your degree and then go do something that you want?' And I said, 'Because I know what I want to do. And this isn't it,'" she recalls.

She attended Centennial College's copywriting program in Toronto, and landed internships at Wolf Advertising and Chiat/Day – the latter turned into a job offer. She accepted on the condition that she could go back to school for her final semester, fearing her parents' reaction if she dropped out again.

Even though she quit film school, Ms. John says that one of the smartest things she ever did was a bit of filmmaking. About eight years ago, she sat her parents down in front of a video camera and asked them to tell their life stories, including how they met through relatives in Hong Kong, married and came to Canada at the ages of 18 and 23.

"It's all about the next generation" for immigrants like her parents, Ms. John says. "They don't even live for themselves. … When I think about my daughter, she's so lucky. And I wanted her to know. As she gets older, she'll have a greater appreciation for how hard it's been for everybody that came before her. It's so important. I'd encourage everyone to do it. That history and detail, you'll never get it again. It will be lost."

I venture that the documentary instinct might be common to many writers. She agrees. In her spare time, she writes down snippets of dialogue she hears in the street, and ideas for characters or stories sparked by the world around her. Good advertising requires that storytelling instinct, too.

"I just like being out and taking in the world," she says, "being an observer."

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Judy John, CEO and CCO of Leo Burnett Toronto

Age: "You know I'm in advertising where everyone is under 40, don't you?"

Place of birth: Montreal

Education: Studied film, and then economics and management, at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont. Earned a diploma in advertising copywriting from Centennial College in Toronto in 1991. Took night classes in English literature at the University of Toronto while going to college but decided against finishing the degree when she got her first job.

Family: Married to her husband David for almost 16 years. He also worked in advertising, as a producer, and recently retired. They live in Toronto with their daughter Kia.

The person, living or dead, she would most like to have lunch with: Dalai Lama

Favourite music: Kanye West

Favourite sport: NFL football​

Guilty pleasure: Fried chicken

Book she just finished: The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson

Weirdest summer job: Security guard for special events. "One placement was at the Players Men's International Tennis Tournament. I was one of the security guards protecting the tennis stars on court and at the men's locker room – not a bad job for a sports fan like me. And at the Molson Indy, I was stationed at the Pizza Pizza hospitality tent. I made sure no one without the proper credentials got free pizza."

Advertising campaign she wishes she had made: "There are so many." She chooses two: "Be Stupid," a campaign for Diesel jeans by ad agency Anomaly New York, which celebrated the stupid decisions that make life fun; and Ogilvy & Mather France's "Smarter Cities" IBM billboardsthat actually served a purpose, including a stairway ramp and a curve that turned a billboard into a bench.

Hobbies: "I ask that question of people when I'm interviewing: 'What do you do outside of work?' And it forced me to ask myself. I ride my bike to work when it's nice. I run when I can. Writing ideas down – not advertising – ideas, dialogue I don't know what I'll do with. I draw sometimes, which is a nice break from writing. There's something meditative about it. I'll go to the AGO [Art Gallery of Ontario] and just sit, and spend an hour and draw. And I leave and I feel like I've been meditating for an hour. And I hang out with my family, because I don't get enough of them. They are the rocks in my life. I'm addicted to Netflix. I find it really relaxing, but I also find it fuels my creativity, seeing something new or a different way of storytelling or the way characters are built. When I was younger, I watched so much TV. I love TV."

What she's binge-watching on Netflix: "Orange is the New Black. Archer. I love Archer, it's so outrageous." I try stuff out, like Marco Polo, I watched the first season of that. I'll try all sorts of things. Especially when I'm travelling – and I've been travelling a lot."

On moving up: "In the creative industry, they don't train you in how to be a chief creative. You're a good writer, and then you get promoted and you run a couple accounts, and next thing you know, you're running a department at a big agency and learning how to manage the money, and staffing, and all the other things that come with management. That's why I'm really focused on making sure in my agency, we're moving people up and helping them understand the next step: 'You're a group creative director; this is what it means.' Growing people is really important, because most of the time you get promoted, you get more money, and you just move up and good luck to you."

On women in leadership in advertising: "The diversity question comes up a lot because I'm a woman. 'Was it difficult?' I don't see it any differently than if I were a man. My husband would say that I've always been blind to that male-female thing, I'm all about the work. When I first got into the business, there were some awkward moments. Like you're in a meeting and the client doesn't even make eye contact with you. Or you're the only woman in the creative department. There were things like that. But I didn't feel like it held me back in any way. … With this female empowerment movement right now, I'm on the good side of that. Things like getting on a jury – there's still more men than women in the creative side of the business, so I get asked to do a lot more things."

On how it feels to create a blockbuster ad campaign: "You always have a gut feeling about anything that you feel rings true. I have that feeling often. What you don't control is when you put it out in the world, and what people gravitate to. Why one thing goes viral and something else doesn't, is so hard to predict – otherwise we'd do it every day. I have all my clients saying, 'I want one of those viral videos,' and I always say 'Yes, of course, we all want that.' We want to do that every time out. It depends on what people are feeling, and what else is going on out in the world, and all those things you don't control. But definitely, once you do something like [Always 'Like a Girl'], you want to do more. That's the aspiration. We're capable of it. It doesn't have to come out of another market. We're capable of it here in Canada."

On her management style: "I talk about the importance of team all the time. We have this thing at work that I presented about four years ago. It's called 'One Team One Dream.' We created a logo and everything. Probably the first day I presented it, it seemed kind of cheesy, and somewhat obvious. But it was just to reinforce to everyone that this is how this agency has been so successful, that we operate as one team. You can't do anything on your own. It's something I learned from my mother, who never graduated from high school but ran this restaurant for 40 years. She said to me, 'Don't be a jerk.' That is probably the one thing I think about every day – and when I hire. We don't hire jerks. She said, 'People can help you. They can happily help you, or they can silently hurt you' – get in the way, or those political things that happen sometimes. 'As long as you're good to people, they'll be good to you.' I've always held on to that."

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