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Leo Burnett’s Denise Fedewa has died; her ad campaigns elevated women, consumers

Denise Fedewa of Leo Burnett was a consultant on the movie "What Women Want."

Denise Fedewa of Leo Burnett was a consultant on the movie "What Women Want." | Brian Jackson / Sun-Times

Working on an ad campaign for Centrum Silver vitamins, some of the young creatives at Leo Burnett “portrayed everyone over 50 with white hair and a walker,” Jeanie Caggiano, an executive at the advertising agency, remembers.

Then, Denise Fedewa stepped in. During a 33-year career, her intelligence, analysis and intuition had won her promotions all the way to executive vice president for Leo Burnett Worldwide. Now, to show younger staffers that life at 50 didn’t mean dentures and diapers, she brought in focus groups of people as old as 80.

“There was one woman who was running a half-marathon in all 50 states, and one spent winters in Florida, helping kids build scale-model replicas of Noah’s ark that would actually sail,” Caggiano said. One man, a therapist, worked with juvenile trauma survivors. “It was so eye-opening.”

Ms. Fedewa died last month of breast cancer at her Wicker Park home. She was 57.

Denise Fedewa. | Marc Hauser

She worked on ads for diapers, shampoo, cereal and laundry detergent. Her clients included Coca-Cola, Hallmark, Heinz, Kraft, McDonald’s, Pfizer and Whirlpool, and she contributed to global strategy for Procter & Gamble.

Ms. Fedewa would speak up for consumers, telling agencies and corporate clients how customers really thought. She co-founded LeoShe, a Burnett unit that focused on women. It offered advice to Paramount Pictures on the making of the 2000 Helen Hunt-Mel Gibson movie “What Women Want.”

Whether pitching deodorant or car insurance, she would remind others that while women want to be attractive, they also value good health and efficiency.

She helped guide branding for products including Kellogg’s Special K. Once pitched as a diet cereal, its ads evolved to focus on strength and vitality.

“I do remember her saying in several meetings, ‘That’s not the way women make decisions,’ ” said Katie Feifer, a former Burnett vice president.

Ms. Fedewa had a hand in Allstate ad campaigns featuring “Mayhem” and Dennis Haysbert, the insurance company’s voices of chaos and reason.

“So many insurers are telling silly jokes,” Caggiano said. “Denise pushed us to think about things that mattered. Everything she touched was simply far more relevant.”

She also worked on a campaign for UnitedHealthcare that won Cannes Lion awards. It featured a couple re-enacting the finale from “Dirty Dancing” to disastrous, table-breaking results.

A research expert, Ms. Fedewa was behind a Burnett analysis which found that African-American women tend to view themselves as more attractive than white women rate themselves, Caggiano said. The work wound up being featured on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”

“I grew up a blue-collar girl in Lansing, Michigan, and graduate school was never something that even entered my realm,” Ms. Fedewa said in a 2003 interview with Advertising & Society Review.

But a professor, noting her research skills, told her, “Ad agencies actually pay you to do what you are doing here.”

She got a bachelor’s degree in communications from Michigan State University and was in grad school there when Burnett hired her.

Denise Fedewa, co-founder of LeoShe group, worked on many top campaigns for Leo Burnett. | Brian Jackson / Sun-Times

She met her future husband, Angelo Varias, at an art show at the Rainbo Club at Damen and Division.

“She just radiated friendliness and being a real true person in the midst of this hipster club where everyone was wearing black,” Varias said. “She was glowing — and not wearing black. She just had a very open personality and the most magnificent smile.”

When he called, a secretary was supposed to have been warned not to put him through because Ms. Fedewa had some trepidation about getting involved.

“I had two older kids and been a musician,” said Varias, a drummer. But he said, “The secretary messed up and let the call go through.”

When she died, they’d been married 24 years.

Denise Fedewa and Angelo Varias, her husband of 24 years. | Marc Hauser

They enjoyed trips to Oaxaca and Tulum in Mexico. Ms. Fedewa loved their dog Pico and going to Michigan to cut down their Christmas tree. She liked to wear orange and filled their home with books and the colorful furniture her husband imported from Mexico and South America.

Ms. Fedewa is also survived by her daughter Francesca, stepdaughter Andrea Varias and stepson Chris, her father Richard, sisters Debra Klaver and Rebecca Fedewa, brothers Mark, Chuck and Nile and two grandchildren. A memorial celebration is planned for 2 p.m. Sunday in the Courtyard Theater of one of her pro bono clients, the Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier. Tacos — one of her favorite foods — will be served.

Every summer, she and her husband hosted a big taco party in their backyard, where she grew flowers and vegetables. “She’d get back from travel or a tough day at work, she loved to go digging in the dirt,” he said.

“My daughter got a little weepy the other day. We’re starting to get the seed catalogues.”

Denise Fedewa and family. | Lisa Diederich