Raising the stakes and pushing past comfortable: A Q-and-A with Sam Shepherd, EVP, ECD of Leo Burnett Chicago

A year ago, Sam Shepherd joined the Leo Burnett Chicago team with a hunger for HumanKind and a commitment to protecting—even pushing—creative bounds. Now, this all-star Burnetter is taking us behind the scenes of year one and sharing what’s in store for year two.

You recently celebrated your one-year anniversary with Leo Burnett Chicago—congrats! What have you taken away from last year, and what are your goals for year two as a Burnetter?

Twenty years ago, I applied for an internship at Leo Burnett Chicago. I was only 14 years old, and it was my dream to one day work at the agency. My application was rejected because my only work experience was Abercrombie & Fitch. Not even as a real sales associate, I was kept in the stock room. So now that I’ve answered none of your original questions, what have I taken away from my first year as an actual employee? It was 100% worth the wait.

Year two is all about raising the stakes. We have some serious momentum; Britt Nolan is back with a vengeance. I’ve never been more excited for what’s ahead.


To say you’ve hit the ground running in your first year is quite the understatement. Most recently, you played a key role in the widely shared campaign, “The Lost Class” with Change the Ref. It’s incredibly bold creative work—demanding legislative action against gun violence while paying tribute to the 3,044 victims of school shootings who should’ve graduated this year. Walk us through how this idea came to life and the creative thinking behind it.

There are ideas in life that are so insane, they never make it off the paper. “The Lost Class” was one of those, and then some. But that’s a testament to everyone at Leo Burnett who was in on this project from the beginning. We believed in the cause so deeply, that we were willing to do whatever it took to make a difference in the fight against the NRA. Our team was cut from a different cloth and not afraid to break the rules. It’s amazing what can happen when an agency truly protects creativity, no matter the cost. I’ve heard agencies say it before, but it’s a different story to back it up.


At Leo Burnett’s core is this belief that creativity has the power to change human behavior. How do you see creativity in the ad industry addressing today’s most pressing challenges and social justice issues? What is the industry getting right and where do we need to continue pushing?

This might be controversial, but I don’t think we’re pushing hard enough. At the core of creativity is conflict and tension and risk. Creating real change is not comfortable, and it’s not something that’s done by committee. As an industry, I think there are too many ideas that are sugar-coated to look like they’re making a difference. But in reality, we are our own worst enemy. We need to stop preaching to the choir. We need more ideas that aren’t ads, but actions that effect the source of the problem.


From multiple years on Business Insider’s 30 Under 30 list to 2019’s Cannes Grand Prix for “Westworld: The Maze,” you’ve won a lot of awards—like, a whole lot. What does award-winning creative mean to you?

Awards are great. But they’re not everything. That’s what sold me on Leo Burnett’s mantra: What helps people, helps business. If you focus on what really matters—people—then I believe everything will fall into place. Awards are just a symptom and validation of doing your job the way it’s supposed to be done.


It takes a winner to know a winner. You were recently selected to the LIA Awards 2021 Non-Traditional Jury—something you yourself referred to as the “Best. Category. Ever.” Tell us: when you’re judging, what are you looking for?

I’m always looking for ideas that make me ask, “How did they pull that off?” Doing things differently and taking risks bring a whole different rate of difficulty. I know I sound like a broken record, but it’s important to constantly push past comfortable! I love seeing ideas where I can just imagine how many people tried to kill it along the way. That brings a happy tear to my eye. Breaking outside the norm is always scary, but it couldn’t be more necessary for our business. That’s why it’s the best category.


You’re a Chicago native and, naturally, a Cubs fanatic. How and where do you find creative inspiration in the Windy City?

I do not want to talk about the Cubs right now. R.I.P.

I do all of my best work under the Bean in Millennium Park. It has great WiFi, it’s quiet, and if you lean up against its underbelly, it generates a ton of positive creative life force energy.


In your own words, what does HumanKind mean to you?

HumanKind is everything to me. It’s what separates Leo Burnett from every other agency. It doesn’t matter how talented you are or how hard you work or how cool your office is. You have to be surrounded by amazing humans that take care of each other. It’s all we have.


Think fast: What are you listening to right now?

My wife’s voice asking, “Are you done yet?”


Think fast: Coffee or tea?

Coffee. Tea is gross.


Think fast: Dream client?

Liquid Death Mountain Water