Chicago Bullish

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On the coldest day of the year so far, trudging through snow with the wind howling in off Lake Michigan, it's not easy to understand why nearly everyone in the Chicago ad community cites "quality of life" and "nice place to live" as two of the chief reasons for working there. But clearly, among the postproduction community - and to a lesser degree, commercials production companies - there is no shortage of talent. Business is, if not quite booming, holding relatively steady in the nation's second ad city, despite rounds of layoffs at the major ad agencies, Leo Burnett, DDB/Chicago, FCB and the rest.

The reason for the relative prosperity is part positive, part circumstance. In truth, Chicagoland advertising never quite benefited from the boom, and particularly the dot-com explosion, as much as the West Coast and New York. It has, therefore, not been quite as decimated by the bust, either. It's true that the recession bit cold, especially post-September 11, but Chicago is a packaged-goods town. Although the overall number of new commercials being made was clearly down last year, that packaged-goods business is always going to be around.

It's why a long list of post companies - among them, Optimus, Cutters, Avenue, Swell, Flux, I-Cubed, Red Car, NuWorld Editorial and Post Effects - are not shuttering in the manner of so many of their New York contemporaries. And why relative newcomers The White House and Outsider appear to be thriving. High-profile extravaganzas may be fewer on the ground, but the post houses are busy. They are able to contemplate expanding to the West Coast, wise to the fact that while the agency business remains strong in Chicagoland, the trend of "director's choice" shows no sign of abating. Honorable exceptions like Backyard, Mr. Big, Dennis Manarchy and Ebel aside, the director's choice is often closer to home, and home often means Los Angeles.

That's why Optimus opened in Santa Monica recently, following Avenue and Cutters. It is, of course, part of a bigger global trend that The White House epitomizes. Why should the post business alone be immune to the twin forces of globalization and consolidation? "We in Chicago don't get so high in the highs and low in the lows," says Tom Duff, CEO of leading post house Optimus. "In a boom or a strike, we remain more neutral. Chicago has a lot of bread-and-butter advertisers on its books.

"There's a clear trend toward director input," Duff continues. "When you have a production center like L.A., they want to start cutting every day they're shooting. We're a full-service facility here, and we probably won't be in L.A., but now they have a choice of 10 of our editors between the two centers.

"The interesting thing is that the industry is going tapeless," he adds. "I've campaigned that everyone should come in and transfer everything to a data format. We keep trying. And the world is absolutely getting smaller."

What Chicago retains, it seems, is a genuine sense of community. It might just be because of Midwestern niceness, or also because everyone (like Duff) appears to have worked once at Leo Burnett. The principal houses are happy to show their respect for each other - at least in print. Meanwhile, Chicago agencies seem to have a policy of non-exclusivity, sharing out the work around town. It is important for them to have a pool of choice - as long as the talent is there, of course. "The overwhelming question for us each time is where can we get the best work," says Grant Hill, head of television production at DDB/Chicago, and - largely thanks to Budweiser - the sexiest of the big Chicago agencies. "The strength of Chicago is in post, not directing, although we do use companies like Backyard. There is no limit to the talent in the post arena. It really is on a par with New York, L.A. and London. We're more minded to stay here now than five years ago, because we're being presented with better talent. We're doing a lot of our first edits in L.A. and our finishing now here in Chicago."

Of course, this comes partly through bitter experience. For a while in the '90s, Optimus was actually owned by Anheuser-Busch - the idea was to save money through volume business. Of course, like so many other well-intentioned schemes of that ilk, it was doomed to failure. Not only could Optimus not handle other beers, like Coors and Miller, but it could not go near the likes of Philip Morris, Kraft and other competing parent companies, either. Layer onto that the natural aversion any creative has to being told who or where to use, and you can soon see why the company was doomed to failure. Budweiser sold the operation in 1996, and Optimus hasn't looked back. Recent work includes Coors, Miller, McDonald's, Kellogg, Kraft, General Mills, Procter & Gamble, Quaker and Budweiser. You get the picture. But it is not the only house that can claim such a range of clients.

Swell, which opened in1978, currently has 58 staff with eight editors working on brands like Kmart, Verizon and Chevy. About 20 percent of its work is from out of town, and, like Optimus, 95 percent of its income is from ad agencies. Doesn't this leave the company vulnerable in ad recessions? "We're looking to diversify the type of business we have, because of the dependence on commercials," says CEO Dave Mueller. "I would like to develop our broadcast business. I've been through slowdowns and recessions, and this is the worst, but I'm optimistic. People can't panic. You've got to figure out an angle." Swell too is contemplating opening on the West Coast. "We never really hear about New York; we don't bid against it," Mueller says. "We bid against L.A. largely due to pressure from directors. There was a lot of talk after September 11 about staying in Chicago to shoot, but it never really happened."

If the recession and September 11 made the year challenging for established companies, then it must have been terrifying for a startup like Outsider. Now 14 months old, the company's timing could not have been any worse, but it has forged ahead with what owner Mike Labellarte, the former owner of NuWorld, claims is a fresh way of working. The staff of 14 includes six creatives. "I wanted to build a creative environment that would enable us to work like an agency," Labellarte says. "In post, it always seemed to fall down to one person. Here, we put teams together to attack a project."

The collaborative, flexible nature of Outsider is emphasized by each of the suites being fully interchangeable. All editors could work on the same job simultaneously, if need be. Like Optimus' Duff, Labellarte is fond of talking about technology as "a wire" - a point he makes while discussing the three-month project he undertook last summer for Leo Burnett and the Army, on location in North Carolina, building a virtual post house in a hotel. "Ultimately, the screens and monitors and keyboards that you see here will be on a roadshow," he says. "In post, the company is everything. It has to mean something. You can't franchise editing, you lose the very focus of what you are. But it's transportable, thanks to the wire."

Which, of course, could work against Chicago as well as in its favor. In the end it's all about having enough talent. And Chicago is clearly able to attract enough of that. "What's unique about the market," concludes DDB's Hill, "is the earnestness and positiveness of the people in it. The creative experience and process is extremely pleasant in this community. Talented people can be nice, and they can not be nice. It's better to work with nice people."

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