AdForum Exclusive: 5 Questions for Burns Group

by James Thompson

The Burns Group leadership team, led by Mike Burns, was nice enough to take some time out of their busy schedules to answer five questions from AdForum's James Thompson. Enjoy. 

AdForum: Having a clear point of view or difference is key to helping an agency compete. The Burns Group has a very specific philosophy on the business based on your history at big agencies. Can you tell us a bit about the birth of that philosophy?

BG: Having worked at big agencies, we can tell you that the Pareto Principle – the 80/20 rule – is in full effect.

When we started the Burns Group, we asked ourselves, what if we built an agency around the 20% of people who create 80% of the value for clients? What if we focused ourselves exclusively on the people and things critical to brand growth, rejecting all parity spending in our organization? Since then, we have been ruthless when it comes to unnecessary overhead and ego-driven vanities - - the cancer and heart disease of the advertising industry.

Despite our sub-50-person headcount, we don't consider ourselves a boutique agency; rather, we think of the BG as a big-agency concentrate. As in a juice concentrate, we've boiled away the inefficiencies, bureaucracies and organizational impurities that often sabotage the holding-company players.

Many of our current clients have been sourced from the big agency world, because that's where our model offers strong competitive advantage.

AdForum: The Burns Group specializes in getting to the core of a brand using penetrating analysis and a "consumer-centric brand definition process."

Specifically, how does your "Brand Revelations" process generate a new and unique understanding of a brand that was previously undiscovered?

BG: At the Burns Group, we put the consumer at the center of every process, from strategy development right through creative execution. To that end, we’ve created new consumer co-creation methodologies that we leverage constantly.

Our process of BrandRevelations™ uses a breadth of images and language to reveal consumer-driven definitions of brands, pushed beyond generalisms and superficial thinking. It’s a unique process that has, for instance, allowed us to turn pharmaceutical molecules into fully articulated consumer brands, connecting with consumers on a far deeper emotional and human level.

AdForum: The advertising industry is often accused of being too self-indulgent, where agencies are blinded by their own talents and creativity and lose focus of the client's true purpose ­ to increase business. You seem to eschew that approach.

Can you share more about the idea of “where creativity goes to work”, and specifically how your creatives respond to that belief?

BG: Agencies measure success in a wide-variety of ways. Some care about the tally of creative awards. Others use new-business wins as the key metric. Still others gauge success in direct proportion to press coverage. While all of these factors are important, we believe that they should be the dividend of great creative work, and not the purpose.

At the Burns Group, we define success exactly as our clients do, whether that be growing Honey Bunches of Oats' share in a down category, helping Josh Cellars become the fastest growing wine in America, or helping Columbia Business School catapult in ranking from #13 to #3 among the top b-schools. Here, there are no alternative or hidden agendas at play. Our singular purpose is to apply our strategic rigor and creative imagination to grow our clients' businesses, brands and reputations. Full stop.

We've recruited an elite team of creative people who believe in our company's purpose. They are fierce competitors, who are using breakthrough creativity to help our clients succeed in some of the most-challenging categories on earth. We closely track and celebrate that success. When our clients win, we win, and that's the most rewarding part of our jobs.


AdForum: Colliding individuals with various talents, perspectives, and backgrounds gives an agency different perspectives and can yield unique and powerful creative work. Burns Group refers to the idea of “OUTTHINK”. Can you explain what you mean by this and how diverse thinking elevates your collaborative creative efforts and how does that relate to the idea you refer to as “OUTTHINK”?

BG: We have a very unique approach to talent at the Burns Group, based primarily on the notion that our success rests on the collaboration between diverse people. Every chance we have to add talent, we look to add skill sets that expand the internal conversation.

Our strategic-planning team, for example, is made up of people not typically found at advertising agencies — e.g., innovation leaders, brand-design specialists, behavior-change theorists and practitioners from the world of academia. These diverse experiences, when brought together, have helped us service clients holistically – without them having to hire multiple “experts” to solve problems involving brand architecture, portfolio strategy, innovation architecture and creativity.

OutThink ™ is very simply our process of applying diverse perspective to out-think the competition. Thinking outside the conventional agency box, we converge a wide range of perspectives to re-contextualize a problem, find fresh inspiration and deliver game-changing solutions to our clients.

AdForum: Evolutions in technology are constantly changing consumer behaviors and how people interact with brands. How are technological advances changing the ways brands compete and innovate?

BG: Technology has, in some ways, been detrimental to the advertising business, with the growth of issues like ad-blocking, for example. Conversely, technology has also given us ways to interact with consumers in the most amazing new ways.

This interaction, driven by social media, has both forced brands to re-think their go-to-market strategy and given birth to a whole new level of inventiveness. Brands no longer compete solely on what they make and how they make it – they must connect with consumers around their purpose — and social channels are where this can happen.

Our BrandInformers ™ consumer insight and advocacy platform was born from this opportunity. We’re using socialized collaboration to help our clients identify their most compelling functional and emotional points-of-difference, and then leverage those in truly two-sided consumer collaboration. For instance, for Ricola, we have created an insights and advocacy ecosystem, built around over 30,000 loyalists, who are helping that brand stay relevant and in the consumer conversation year-round. These brand advocates are driving massive value from an earned-media standpoint, while also expanding Ricola's depth of loyalty and emotional relevance. 

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