Many of the world’s most recognizable ad campaigns crossed Carla Michelotti’s desk before popping up on TV sets, billboards, magazines and Web sites around the globe. As general counsel for Leo Burnett Worldwide, Michelotti is the legal gatekeeper on the advertisements for a diverse slate of blue-chip brands, including Philip Morris, Kellogg’s, General Motors and Procter & Gamble.
But Michelotti’s influence extends far beyond Leo Burnett’s client base. She is internationally known as a chief strategist for the ad industry. She works tirelessly with lawmakers in the U.S. and abroad to promote self-regulation and free commercial speech.
For example, she brought together White House representatives to discuss online advertising in 1994, organized the first global summit on advertising self-regulation and served three terms as chairman of the industry’s primary self-regulatory body, the National Advertising Review Council.
Although Michelotti has been with Leo Burnett since 1979, she says her job still keeps her on her toes. “Any ad that is going to be effective is going to be something that has never been done before,” she says. “So in this industry we are constantly doing things for the first time.”
Q: You joined the law department at Jewel Cos. Inc. (a grocery chain) right after law school. How did you get that job?
A: I worked in Jewel’s legal department for two summers during law school and loved what I was doing there. They initially said they weren’t going to hire me because they never hired anyone without experience. But I knew that I wanted to work in house, so I started interviewing and was lucky enough to get several job offers. But then Jewel made me an offer that beat the best offer I’d received.
Q: Why did you want to go in house?
A: When I was in law school, I shared an apartment with my sister who was an associate with Sonnenschein in Chicago. She loved the firm and her practice, but I knew that I would not. From working with Jewel and seeing what kind of practice in-house counsel had, I really liked the impact of being on the ground and living with the client.
Q: How did you get interested in advertising law?
A: I just raised my hand. An issue came up with one of Jewel’s trademarks, and they needed someone to handle it. I said, “I just had a class in trademarks; let me go figure it out.” That was the way I got into the IP arena and eventually advertising.
Q: How did you build up the skill set you needed to take on the GC role?
A: Handling matters from mergers and acquisitions to SEC-related matters and real estate deals has provided many opportunities to develop my legal skills. Leo Burnett also has great attorneys, many of whom have been here for more than 20 years. So I’ve been fortunate to work with a seasoned and experienced staff. In addition, the legal departments of Leo Burnett clients are run by some of the smartest attorneys in the world. Working with our clients’ legal teams also has provided a great education.
Q: What is your greatest challenge?
A: There is always a challenge in anticipating the issues your clients will be responding to and addressing in the future. For example, when anticipating the issues that the industry would confront with Internet advertising, we put together the first meeting between the advertising industry and the National Information Infrastructure–the White House “information superhighway” group. At the time, they asked, “What are you doing here? No one is ever going to advertise on the Internet.”
Q: How do you deal with regulators?
A: I have worked with government regulators quite a bit. I always feel that if we are all doing our jobs, the regulators, our attorneys and the clients should be on the same side. Over the years, Leo Burnett has been a strong supporter of advertising self-regulation.
Q: What about foreign regulators?
A: Because Leo Burnett is global and our clients are global, it has been important to be close to the regulatory environment around the world. In 1990 I became involved in European regulatory matters as a result of the EU Television Without Frontiers and Data Protection Directives. Since then I have been involved with regulations in Asia, Latin America, Russia and the Middle East. Years ago, I gathered the first ever international meeting of self-regulatory organizations and I currently serve as the International Advertising Association global vice president for self-regulation. Last week I met with the European Advertising Standards Alliance and the new EU Commissioner for Consumer Affairs in Brussels.
Q: What do you think about the current level of advertising regulation?
A: There is a high degree of respect between the industry and government. There are industry task forces of thought leaders brought together to address key issues–whether it’s privacy and data collection or advertising to children. The industry is in a good place and the FTC is seeking perspective from the industry on issues that we need to address together.
Q: How do you respond to the call for restrictions on advertising to children?
A: There has been discussion about advertising to children over the course of my entire legal career. There were attempts to ban advertising to children back in the 1970s and 1980s, and the industry responded in several ways, such as adopting guidelines for children’s advertising and creating a self-regulatory organization called the Children’s Advertising Review Unit (CARU). As these issues have resurfaced, the industry has been smart to review the CARU guidelines to address current issues.
Q: What role does your department play in upholding self-regulatory standards?
A: Our department reviews and provides legal comments before ads are disseminated to the public. It is also Leo Burnett’s practice for our legal department to review and comment on the concept before the client invests in producing an advertisement.
Q: Does Leo Burnett face many lawsuits?
A: We always try to anticipate what could lead to litigation and resolve the issues in advance. From time to time, there may be some negotiation over an issue. I actually met my husband over such a potential claim.
Q: What was that about?
A: He was a celebrity agent with Inter-national Creative Management (a Hollywood talent agency) and there was a difference of opinion between Leo Burnett and his client over the status of a contract. He came in to discuss the matter, and that was the very first conversation we had. Years later–well after the resolution of that disagreement–we ended up getting married! To this day, we continue to agree to disagree over the original contract dispute.