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Leo Burnett Company, Limited
175 Bloor Street East, North Tower
Toronto, Ontario M4W 3R9
+416 925 5997

Margaret Arnold

SVP, Director, Human Resources

EVP David Kennedy


Lisa Morch

VP, Director of Knowledge Mgmt

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It's the "Death March" that Defines You

It’s after 11:00pm on a dreary September Friday night, and contrary to what you might think, I’m not at the club getting dangerous on the dance floor. Nay, I’m still in my office at Leo Burnett Chicago, and the smell of energy drinks is wafting in the air. I’ll probably be here for several more hours this evening and throughout weekend.

Oh, and I’m not alone. In fact, I’m surrounded by almost 30 colleagues. We have teams set up in two “war rooms” to streamline communication and efficiency. There are snacks and refreshments everywhere, assistant project managers tending to everyone’s needs, the buzz of a half dozen intense conversations happening at once, and a fevered intensity that blankets the floor.

Many of the chief players in this cast have worked seven days a week, up to 20 hours per day for well over a month. They’re tired, salty, slap-happy and smell a little funny. I wonder how most of these guys are still alive, let alone standing and coherent. We’re in the middle of the final weekend of the first release of this product and it’s coming down to the wire. We’re about to deliver version 1.0 of what is arguably the biggest and most exciting cross channel campaign our agency has conceived this year.

It’s no mystery that this business usually demands more hours than your typical, humdrum “9-to-5” gig. Our normal workweek ranges from 50 to 70 hours, if not more. Then there’s that occasional project that we sometimes refer to as the “Death March”: The project where the scope is staggeringly ambitious and seems to change every day. The deadlines are locked down tight, the financial stakes are high and the obstacles are both scary and plentiful.

My team builds the solutions: That makes us last in the long chain of bringing the ideas to life. We absorb every upstream delay, every missed interim deadline, every change in direction and every scope shift. The typical Death March project is rife with each. These projects simply do not get done without flexibility, perseverance, teamwork and oil tankers worth of elbow grease. Rarely do you escape without skirmishes, bruises, scares and scars.

Thinking back, it seems like there’s roughly one of these things each year. When I see the storm clouds forming, I face the painful facts that accompany them: I’m going to have to beg my wife and kids to be understanding; I’m going to have to sacrifice all my personal commitments; I’m going to be tired, hungry and short tempered; my body will suffer the negative effects of sleep deprivation; and there will be enough cortisol and norepinephrine raging through my bloodstream to allow me to achieve human flight.

Worst of all, I’m going to have to ask others to give up having a personal life and put themselves in harm’s way. Its one thing to make personal sacrifices for a project, but it’s on entirely another level to ask a team of others to do so with you or for you. The best you can do is try to set an example by mustering the strength to swallow hard and ratchet up the “let’s do this” attitude.

Now despite all I’ve said so far, I truly believe that these are the most important projects we execute. Why?

Well, who learns anything delivering an easy project? How much pride can you really justify if you delivered something that anyone could have done? How much does your portfolio grow by churning out vanilla assignments?

Now that I’m doing more “leading” than “doing,” I often find myself in a fatherly mentor role. I tend to use anecdotes from past project experience to illustrate the lessons I’m trying to impart. Those stories help me explain why I’m pushing for a particular approach or help me articulate why my “spider senses” are tingling that a bad idea is going get us bit in the ass. These stories are never sourced from the everyday, easy, manageable projects (yes, such things actually exist). The harsh lessons from the roughest projects are the most valuable.

Very few people recognize life’s most significant moments when they’re in the middle of them, but luckily, a little delayed retrospection allows us to not miss out on the benefits of the experience. I often look back on these projects with a sense of pride and camaraderie with my teammates. Maybe even brag a bit about how little sleep we got, how many consecutive hours we worked and how many days in a row we went without showering or changing underwear.

Besides having dramatic stories to tell at the lunch table, it’s the brutal projects that truly define us more than any other. These experiences give us wisdom for the future and test our mettle. These projects prove to our clients and the rest of the world how much we’re willing to sacrifice to deliver an idea for their brand. We learn new coping mechanisms and techniques and shine a light on where we can be better. Most significantly, these projects bond us to each other as a team.

On this particular project there have been no shortage of tense moments among us, along with frustration, yelling, pressure and fear. But there have also been celebrations, laughs, high-fives, and enough mini-successes along the way that give us hope that – holy crap – we’re on the verge of pulling this off. We’re focused, galvanized, excited and proud. And as we approach the end, the stress, exhaustion and worry are fading from our faces. In their place is the icy confident stare of people who are getting shit done.

Inspiring as it is, I know that I owe it to these weary soldiers to look back at this project and keep trying to refine our mousetrap. Only through continuous evolution of our process, tools and attitudes can we deliver amazing creative product and make it look easy. Well… easier, maybe.

At the moment, I’m struggling with how I could possibly express enough appreciation to this team for their talent, resilience, dedication and attitude. They are remarkable people, and I’d gladly go into battle with them again. I hope when this launches they can look back at the product we built with a sense of pride, knowing that we succeeded under very difficult conditions and gave our clients something amazing. As their careers advance and they lead larger and larger teams, I hope they use stories from this project to impart their wisdom on the next generation of digital hot shots.

I hope this “Death March” helps shape them into something stronger and wiser than they were before.