The old saying about advertising is that it’s where artists go to sell out. So it’s a little odd to hear Sam Shepherd, global executive creative director of Leo Burnett, talk about advertising as a place where creative people can advocate for human rights. “If you’re talented,” he says, “why wouldn’t you use those talents for something good?”

Shepherd, 36, most recently garnered accolades for “The Lost Class,” made for Change the Ref, a gun reform nonprofit founded by the parents of a student killed in the 2018 Parkland shooting. The TV spot captures former National Rifle Association president David Keene speaking at an outdoor graduation ceremony, only for the cameras to pan back and show 3,044 empty chairs, representing the number of Americans who would have matriculated from high school in 2021 had they not fallen victim to gun violence. Shepherd and his colleagues collaborated with Sacha Baron Cohen’s team to create phony emails, phone numbers, and a website to trick Keene into thinking he was rehearsing a speech for a real graduation. The ad swept most of the major industry awards and was nominated for an Emmy.

When Shepherd was 14, the Algonquin native submitted, in his words, “the saddest application ever” for Leo Burnett’s internship program. He finally got hired 20 years later, returning to Chicago in 2020 after nearly a decade cutting his teeth at New York agencies, where he won awards for campaigns he crafted for HBO and Krylon. In only two years with Leo Burnett, he’s already been named the world’s top executive creative director by industry trackers D&AD and One Club for Creativity.

What’s next? Leo Burnett has handed him the keys to the Kellogg’s Cheez-It account. And he’s working on a new spot for Change the Ref. “This one is equally as ambitious,” he says, “but I’m gonna keep it quiet until it hits.”