Leo Q & A
Working with the stars, Q&A with Celebrity Talent Expert Peggy Walter
You may not know Peggy, but you definitely know her work. From stocking John Hughes movies with fresh talent to overseeing contracts for Super Bowl spots, her instinct for finding and working with incredible performers is what makes her a standout professional.
Peggy Walter knows a thing or two about pop culture. Peggy utilizes every tweet, IG post and People Magazine newsflash to become better at her job.
From booking incredible talents for The Joy Series, like The Voice alum Megean McNeal, to closing a major contract with the likes of Jonathan Van Ness for Pop Tarts’ 2020 Super Bowl spot, Peggy has cemented her legacy at Leo Burnett as the go-to for all things celebrity. Here she shares more about her career path, her best advice for people looking to break into the talent biz, and her favorite experiences working with celebrities:
‘Celebrity Talent Expert’ is not a title that you hear often. What goes on in any given workday for you?
My job varies a lot day-to-day, I work on every piece of Leo Burnett business, plus projects for our sister agencies. Some days I’m researching and some days I’m getting down in the weeds with agents and lawyers in the negotiation process. I start as early as possible in the development of a concept, working with the creative team, and then continue through the contract.
Do you help creative teams identify the best talent for a project or do you more often help secure the desired talent?
There are those occasions that are like, ‘we absolutely need Ice Cube, because it’s for something with ice,’ you know. However, I’m working with our Nintendo team right now and we’re just creating lists upon lists of folks for the creatives to consider for the spot.
Every project is a little different and sometimes the creatives have a very strong idea of who they want, or they’re writing for a specific performer. Sometimes a performer just kind of bubbles up and becomes the right person for it.
You’ve been in the business for over 30 years, working with stars at every stage of their careers. How did you find this niche? How did you specifically leverage these skills in advertising?
I went to Northwestern and through a series of very random occurrences, I ended up producing theatre there and I worked with The Dolphin Show, which is an organization that stages America’s largest student-produced musical.
A casting director came backstage to meet some of the actors and I got to know her. After I graduated, I was unhappily working in PR, so when she asked if I wanted to assist in her office I gladly worked with her for about a year. After that, I was an agent during a really fertile time in the Chicago theater timeline. Remains Theatre, Steppenwolf Theater and several other Chicago theater companies were just getting on their feet so we were getting a lot of attention from Hollywood and Broadway.
So, I represented a ton of actors at the beginning of their careers who have gone on to do exceptionally well. People like John and Joan Cusack, Jeremy Piven and Lili Taylor were my clients. I negotiated celebrity contracts at DDB for eight years before coming to Leo Burnett. And 25 years later, I’m still here.
Do you have a formula for finding talent? Is there anything about the process that people might find surprising?
This has evolved over time. When I first was doing this job, it was an emotional decision for the creatives and the client based on which celebrities everyone liked personally. Now, things are way more data-driven, but there’s absolutely still instinct involved. The data often helps us support the talent that we feel is perfect for the role.
What does it take to do this kind of work? Are there any attributes that are well-suited for talent finding?
I think that I have infinite patience. When everybody around me is getting very frantic, wondering what will happen and if the talent will take the offer, I find myself getting into my zone and being very comfortable with waiting. The deal is there. We’re just going to wait. It’s served me well throughout my real life and my work life to just sit back and wait for a minute.
What advice would you give to someone who’s looking to hold a similar position in the industry?
Bathe in pop culture. Honestly, it’s like when Rosie Perez in White Men Can’t Jump is trying to win Jeopardy and she says, ‘My mind is stuffed with so much useless information’ and I’m like that sometimes. I’ll be out to dinner and somebody will mention a celebrity and I’ll be like, ‘Oh, they just got divorced.’ Why do I know that? I just know.
Be all over current events and trends and know where your weaknesses are. I really depend on younger folks for information on new musical artists and sports, and creative friends plus lots of Googling when it comes to athletes or pop stars.
Do you have some tricks of the trade to stay up to date on something that’s constantly moving, like pop culture and public opinion?
I am on my phone all day scrolling. Any breaks in the day—I’m definitely updating. When people still read magazines, I read People, Us Weekly and Entertainment Weekly. Now, you can pretty much pick up any relevant news from the Internet because things trend in and out day to day.
Now all my algorithms are like, ‘Oh, this lady’s crazy about celebrities. I’ll just feed her all the celebrities.’ Not that I’m complaining!
We know that driving diversity and equity is crucially important in all aspects of creative production, including the talent representation. Can you talk about how you’ve seen representation evolve during your time in the industry and the work that still needs to be done?
When I was an agent we represented every ethnicity, every race… We would be working on a breakdown for a soap opera and you’re submitting actors, and the brief would say ‘Good looking, 30 years old’ and we always submitted every person we had if they were a good looking 30-year-old. It’s not for me to precast something. And at this job, celebrities are just being cast as themselves. We find talent based on who’s the right fit because of their personality, presence, and values.
For example, we’re working on a job right now where we’re looking at men, women, every ethnicity, celebrities with a variety of professions and backgrounds—the only casting requirement is that they have kids and they all have an affinity for the product. After that, there are no restrictions on who we should look into and collaborate with.
What is your proudest achievement from your time at Leo Burnett?
We did a Super Bowl spot where I got to see Bryan Cranston perform and, oh my god, it was glorious. It was like watching an eight-hour acting seminar. Every take was brilliant. Every take was different. First he would do it menacing, then he would do it in a comedic way. It was like, the most awesome day of watching somebody shoot. They hired a really good actress to work against him and watching the two of them work… It was just awesome.
That was a big day. That was a good one. It was like I was back in the theater.
Do you think that your love of theater determined the course of your career?
Definitely. Theater has these little moments and these little relationships that spark on the stage. I love watching actors work and the fact that I’m able to do that still—it’s a total bonus of my job.