Solving writer’s block and the key to a successful creative partnership: A Q-and-A with Steve Persico, Co-CCO of Leo Burnett Toronto

For nearly two decades, Steve Persico has witnessed Leo Burnett’s creative product rise to embrace the industry’s digital transformation. Learn about his new role as Co-Chief Creative Officer.

This February you were named Co-CCO of Leo Burnett Toronto—congratulations! Talk about this tandem role and what’s key to making a creative partnership thrive.

Thanks! Lisa and I have been working together for 11 years, so we are one person. However, we have very different skill backgrounds, which allows us to approach the work and how the agency should operate from different POVs—it makes for good conversation.
It also allows us to share the load and give more of ourselves to teams, projects, clients and all the other requisites to keep the agency reaching for the stars. Most importantly, we have the same work ethic and goals. I never doubt she’s giving it her all, and I hope she feels the same about me.

You’ve been at Leo Burnett Toronto for nearly two decades. Since you started at the agency in 2006, how has its creative product evolved—whether that’s on a global level or specifically the Toronto office? Pick a favorite piece of work from your first year as a Burnetter, and from this past year.

Almost two decades later, and I still feel the excitement and hunger as when I walked into the agency 16 years ago. So much has changed since my first day: 16 years ago there was no social media, and its presence today increasingly drives the need for speed, simplicity, relevancy and entertainment.

It’s much easier now for people to ignore, skip and swipe by your brand; but it’s also much easier for a brand to make an authentic connection with people over a shared passion. It just comes down to making the right kind of work. In my first few years at the agency, we had great clients at James Ready Beer. I can’t pick one piece—and that’s the point. Our budgets were small, but we were going ‘viral’ offline, in the real world—turning a billboard or label into something buzzworthy.

From this past year, though, there are a few pieces I’m especially proud of from the team: “Robin Hood Flour” for solving a problem and our Wonder Bone “You Choose What They Chew” work for appealing to my love of great insights. There’s another ten years’ worth of work in ‘You Choose What They Chew.’

At the start of this year, you (virtually) joined the brightest thinkers and creative minds across the Leo Burnett network at the Global Product Committee (GPC). As a judge, you spent several days discussing, analyzing and ranking the network’s recent creative product on the HumanKind Scale. What qualities do you deem necessary to be an effective judge—whether that’s at the agency’s storied GPC tradition or other industry awards programs.

I remember being a junior-level employee when the GPC came to the Toronto office. It was my first taste of the agency tradition. I walked the halls looking at all the work and listening to the leaders talk about the campaigns. My mind for great work grew 100x (an actual fact).

Since then, I’ve had the chance to join the panel many times. GPC is different than award shows: we are there to make the work better. It’s not just about where a campaign sits on the GPC scale today but the steps a team can take after the fact so the next time it can score higher. In this case, the most important quality is the ability to see the potential of a future 8 (a contagious idea), 9 (a transformational campaign) or 10 (legendary work).

Let’s jump into the flurry of creative recognition Leo Burnett Toronto has recently received. In May, the D&AD Awards 2021 announced its winners and awarded Leo Burnett Toronto with two Graphite Pencils. One of the award-winning campaigns, “The Genderless Poster,” takes on gender norms in a visual medium. Can you talk about the thinking behind this non-profit work, and how you believe this type of creative product effectively reaches young adults?

I’m so proud of all the people who won those Pencils and the clients who crave that caliber of work. When they first shared ‘The Genderless Poster’ with me, I had the reaction I want every person to have with it. First, what is this? Second, whoa. Third, we can escape gender norms simply by changing our mind.

It’s the type of work people stop to engage with and walk away knowing what to do.

Words play such a critical role in creative campaigns, even in more design-centric work like “The Genderless Poster.” As a copywriter by trade, can you offer any tips for those struggling with the all-too-dreaded writer’s block? If you could give your younger self a piece of advice, what would that be?

Here are five tips:

— One, love writing to the point you study it and save examples of it like a designer would collect images.

— Two, you can say anything in any tone – have some fun! Hungry? CupANoodles! Trampoline the Rainbow.

— Three, volume first and then go back and polish.

— Four, try not to sound like an ad.

— Five, imagine the voice you want reading this and that will change the way you write.

I would tell younger Steve to not write in such a small font because it’s bad for his eyes.

Describe how Leo Burnett Toronto reflects the values and work of Leo Burnett the man, based on the following words: Innovation, Storytelling, Creative Solutions, HumanKind.

My favorite Leo quote, and one that proves to be true day after day, is, “Take care of the work and the work will take care of you.” All the themes you listed happen when we focus on doing the great work the brand deserves. It’s such a simple formula. When our agency is at its best we are focused on the work and protect it from politics, laziness and compromise.