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Cannes Preview: James Kirkham on “The Game Show Theory”

On June 24 in Cannes, Leo Burnett Global Head of Mobile and Social James Kirkham, along with Exposure Chief Strategy Officer Jonathan Fraser, will present “The Game Show Theory.”

James provided us with the inspiration behind creating this theory and some of its core tenets. Read on to get a sneak preview, and if you’re in Cannes, check out the event on June 24 at 12 p.m. in Audi A. More details here.

James Kirkham

On stage at Cannes, it’s as important to entertain as it is to provide a learning experience for delegates. If I can manage to do both, that’s even better.

Last year, my best-attended speaking event, “Stand Up for Planning,” took place at Cannes. The talk, co-hosted with Jonathan Fraser, compared planning in advertising agencies to the art of stand-up comedy. The Festival was delighted with the response, and we were invited to speak again in 2015. We came up with the concept for this year’s session while drinking rosé with one of the conference program directors. This year, we introduce “The Game Show Theory: The Secret to Successful Campaigns.”

Jonathan Fraser and I had come up with some successful game show formats, which have now been shown around the world, and that work inspired the talk. For us, however, writing game shows was more of a hobby than a work stream — we were generating plenty of ideas, but rarely managing to see them all through the lengthy timescales of television development. Those that did make it, however, seemed to obey a set of common rules. The more we looked at our shows and compared them to formats of the past, it felt like we could come up with a filter — our own little bible of just what ingredients need to go into a super successful game show.

So far, it’s very televisual. But this is advertising. And here is the fun bit: We were doing our day jobs and thinking up a killer campaign for a brand new client, but we couldn’t crack the pitch. We then stumbled across our own Post-It notes for making the perfect game show and “borrowed” what we could from what we had around us. The notes from our game show “secret recipe” transformed our ad campaign from tired and lifeless to drastically better in a matter of minutes.

It felt like a coincidence, so we decided to try out this handy new tactic again to see if it was repeatable — and it worked extremely well. We could apply the Game Show Theory to all sorts of different advertising campaigns, and nine times out of 10, it would make them far more exciting and compelling and deliver much stronger communications.

There are around seven golden rules to the theory, and our seminar will reveal them all. We’ll then apply them live in front of the audience as we work up an actual brand campaign, using these pillars of game show perfection. As a taster, here are a few to think about:

• The best game shows have a narrative arc with sub-plots. “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” is the most obvious and famous example; it isn’t a simple “A to B” journey for a £1,000,000 prize; it has very specific “crisis” moments within the arc. These are things like “Phone a friend” or “Ask the audience.” There’s a clear beginning, middle and end, multiple crisis moments, a climax and a denouement.

• The greatest game show examples also have cliffhanger moments, too. They build up drama, create suspense and leave you waiting on the edge of your seat.

• Rewards have always been a big part of game shows — although their evolution is especially interesting. Back in the 1980s in England, you could be on “Bullseye” (a game show about darts — yes, darts!) and win a toaster. Now rewards have to be so much more — for example, winning an actual husband or wife.

That’s the preview. How these rules translate into advertising is where it gets really interesting. If that’s not enough for you to attend the talk, Kim Kardashian is on the same stage immediately after our talk, so at least you can get an early seat for that.