Joe Duncan: Directing Digital Innovation
“I came out of college with a liberal arts degree, and I really didn’t know what I wanted to do for a living,” recalls Joe Duncan, vice president/director, print innovation and technology for Leo Burnett USA—the worldwide marketing communications powerhouse that manages such household brands as Kellogg’s, Heinz, GM, Wrigley and Hallmark.
But this uncertainty resolved itself quickly in the mind of this 2006 Publishing Executive Hall of Fame inductee. When he happened upon an inside sales job at an envelope manufacturer, he says, “I really didn’t like anything about the job, except the printing side of the business. The company mostly did folding and converting, but it also had a print operation, which fascinated me. It piqued my curiosity.”
He decided to follow his gut, making the move to a Milwaukee-based sheetfed printer, where he worked as an estimator.
“Those two jobs really taught me a lot about the mechanics of print. I’d learned how envelopes were printed with rubber-plated flexography, and how fine offset printing was done—how the plates were made, how inks and papers worked together,” Duncan recalls. “It was a better education than any four-year degree I could have gotten in printing.”
But in those days, Milwaukee’s economy was on the decline, and Duncan began to fret over his future there.
“I was afraid Milwaukee was going to be the next Fort Wayne or Toledo during the days when the auto industry began to lose out to Japanese competition,” he explains. “I felt that Chicago might offer me more diverse career opportunities, and I was fortunate to find a printing company there that was growing and doing some really interesting things. And that was where I’d learn the most about business—working for Madden Communications in Chicago.”
Duncan held several jobs within the organization—spending time in production before making a switch to sales, managing important accounts, like Kraft Foods. In 1999, he made his next career move—this time, to Sells Printing of New Berlin, Wis.—selling print to Fortune 500 clients.
From Print Supplier
to Print Buyer
About two years later, Duncan made the monumental transition from print supplier to print customer.
“I had known Jim Mikol, who is the senior vice president of print here at Leo Burnett,” Duncan recalls. “We’d often talk and share our thoughts about what was taking place in the industry as it was going digital. There weren’t a lot of ad agencies back then that were willing to invest in the workflow, but through Jim’s vision, Leo Burnett was. He talked me into coming on board, presenting me with a very interesting opportunity,” he explains.
Duncan’s challenge as director of print production and technology was to take the agency’s print department digital, Mikol—who was inducted into the Publishing Executive Hall of Fame four years ago—had explained.
“I’m happy to say that the job has been everything he said it would be, and then some,” Duncan notes, although he admits that there have been obstacles along the way.
“There are seismic changes in how work is distributed, and questions remain about who is responsible for what. Everybody is fighting for the work and trying to change their business models without sacrificing profitability,” he says.
“If you’re in the business of content development or content production right now, and you’re not interested in resolving these issues, then you’re in the wrong business,” he adds.
Just like its publishing cousins, ad agencies have been profoundly impacted by the influence of new media. “Now,” he says, “the content that you’ve traditionally produced for print needs to be repurposed for other media, or content you’ve produced for the Web or TV needs to be repurposed to print. These are dilemmas that, quite frankly, I don’t think anyone has a real handle on. We’re all out here trying new things, responding to the new demands. One thing is for sure: If you’re averse to change, this is not the place to be.”
While the pace of technological advances may leave some faint-at-heart, Duncan relishes it. He is passionate in his quest to keep the agency on the cutting edge, always striving for the utopian “better, faster, cheaper” methods.
When asked about the most important strategy he’s deployed throughout his career in print and production, Duncan says it’s all about sharing, being client-focused, being humble, cooperative, and never settling for the status quo.
“You have to open yourself up, give everything you have. There can be no secrets,” he stresses. “We have to keep talking about issues; we have to continue to think about what might come next. We have to keep sharing information.”
And Duncan practices what he preaches; he is an active participant in industry associations, he chaired the 2005 Spectrum conference for industry association IDEAlliance, and in 2006 was presented with a Luminaire award from the Partnership in Print Production (P3) association in New York.
He also sits on the board of directors for the Midwest Athletes Against Childhood Cancer and the board of visitors for the University Lake School.
Many, likewise, have shared their knowledge with Duncan along the way, he says—people who have taken him underwing and taught him the tricks of the trade.
“What we do here at Burnett is unique. My peers, Anne Trout, Nancy Cardea and Elise Garber have been patient with my opinions and have taught me much. And the people at Burnett have given me great latitude and support as we try to provide compelling solutions to new challenges every day,” Duncan notes. “I am flattered to be associated with the Print Management Group at Leo Burnett.
“And my boss, Jim Mikol, is the visionary,” he adds. “He’s been a constant source of information and inspiration—he’s prophetic. … He’s taught me that you have to get it right; you have to think everything through, and not to get stuck in old paradigms. I also owe a debt of gratitude to Joe Madden, the founder of Madden Communications. He taught me how the business of communications was done. Those two guys have had a profound impact on my career.”
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