CREATIVE FLAME HEATS UP IN CHICAGO

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CHICAGO-Two new executive creative directors have the ad community here buzzing about how they've re-energized their agencies. And the buzz is about two of the unlikeliest suspects: Foote, Cone & Belding and Bayer Bess Vanderwarker.

Geoff Thompson, who moved from FCB, San Francisco, to the agency's Chicago office in April, has dismissed several people, taken personal control of the Coors Brewing Co. account and is revamping FCB's sluggish creative department.

A mile south of FCB, Mary Ann Quick has almost immediately beefed up the sorry creative reputation of Bayer Bess since moving from Leo Burnett USA in April.

The buzz has helped dispel recent public moaning about the state of Chicago agencies' creative product. As a community built on homey package-goods accounts, Chicago agencies have always had a creative image problem, made worse by recent vacancies and missteps in key local creative posts. But a series of recent hires, and the changes those creatives have put in place, have generated new excitement about the future.

Mr. Thompson and Ms. Quick are the most recent additions to a new generation of executive creative directors at the top 10 Chicago agencies. That new generation has assumed the challenge of rebuilding a civic reputation for creativity that was given itsedge by the likes of Leo Burnett, Keith Rein-hard and Lou Centilivre.

Some, like DDB Needham Worldwide's Bob Scarpelli, are starting to hit their stride as they reshape creative departments; others, like J. Walter Thompson USA's Nina DiSesa, are winning awards for previously lackluster agencies. And Bob Welke is nearing his first anniversary in Leo Burnett's old job, heading the creative department of the city's biggest shop.

Was there ever a problem with Chicago creativity in general? "It's perception," said Tatham Euro RSCG Chairman-CEO Ralph Rydholm, the dean of Chicago creatives. "It's not that Chicago doesn't do good creative; it's that 80% of the stuff we do ads for goes in your mouth. When you're talking about food and drink, you tend to want warm and loving, not cutting edge creative."

Still, Mr. Rydholm pointed to Burnett, which earlier this year named Exec VP-Group Creative Director Cheryl Berman as the first woman on its board, and to Young & Rubicam, which turned to Chicagoan Ted Bell in the hunt for a creative leader.

"It's a sign that there are some great talents here who are emerging from the shadows," Mr. Rydholm said.

One of the talents is Ms. DiSesa, who moved to JWT from Y&R, New York, nearly three years ago and has helped rebuild what was a tattered office with work including the award-winning "Brainfreeze" commercial for client 7-Eleven.

"All creatives are alike; there's no difference but the twang in their voices," Ms. DiSesa said. "The difference is the nature of the business they have to work on."

She said one problem specific to many Chicago agencies is being a branch office of a New York agency; her experience shows New Yorkers get first dibs on great pieces of business.

Geoff Thompson may be something new in the annals of Chicago's executive creative directors.

Having made his mark with cutting edge ads for Coors' Zima and Levi Strauss & Co.'s Levi's for Women, Mr. Thompson, 51, finally agreed to come to Chicago after years of discussion with FCB Managing Director Mitch Engel. He succeeded Eric Weber, who left earlier this year after a disappointing two years on the job.

Mr. Thompson moved fast, dismissing the key creatives on the Coors business and taking direct control of creative. He has recruited three different creative groups, none with any Coors experience, for new ideas.

"I'm trying to deconstruct the department," he said. "Right now, creative directors have too much control. I want to force the teams to do the work and not have to go through three levels to get out of the creative department."

Mr. Thompson said that when he took a look at the agency's current campaigns, he saw only three that were perfect. "It doesn't have to be that way."

Ms. Quick agreed.

"To have great advertising," she said, "you need great people and great clients."

Leadership helps, though-and Bayer Bess has lacked a single-minded creative leader since Tony Vanderwarker resigned two years ago. In her first week on the job, Ms. Quick, exec VP-chief creative officer, jumped in to personally re-edit the 1994 TV campaign for Quaker Oats Co.'s Gatorade.

The client and account team loved the revision. "It was a confidence builder," Ms. Quick said. "... Since the Gatorade experience, everyone's been more relaxed, and we've already developed a real sense of teamwork."

Partly because of the insular nature of Burnett, only those on the inside know much about Ms. Quick. She said that during her 12 years there, her proudest moment was helping invent the "wash and go" repositioning of Procter & Gamble Co.'s Pert Plus shampoo.

"Advertising is a business as much as an art," she said. "But you have to balance both."

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