Ian Baer, who describes himself as "bald, yet stylish" with the body of a baseball catcher, not only has the physique but also the mentality for being part of a team. When the Brooklyn-born direct marketer left New York in October 1999 to become president of Rapp Collins Worldwide's Chicago office, he faced the challenge of convincing his new roster that he was in the dugout with them.
The rumor around the office was he'd been dispatched to shut down the struggling Midwestern operation of the No. 3 direct marketing shop in the U.S. Mr. Baer recalled bringing the contract for his new house to his introductory staff meeting as proof that he'd be staying awhile.
Mr. Baer wasn't on a mission to close the office when he succeeded Michael Carney as its president, but to build it up on the foundation of a new business model-originating from Rapp Collins CEO Malcolm Speed-that relies on deeper, consultative relationships with clients rather than piecemeal, project work.
FEWER CLIENTS, MORE BILLINGS
The Chicago office now has fewer clients but nearly double the billings of a year ago. The office was in the red as 2000 began; 1999 billings totaled about $35 million from 28 clients and a lot of project work. Mr. Baer put the office in the black, growing revenue 70% in 2000 while slashing his client list. He kicked off 2001 with $65 million in billings from six clients including Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., SBC Communications, United Parcel Service of America and Western Union. The agency forecasts 40% revenue growth for 2001.
The 34-year-old Mr. Baer-tough, tenacious and not afraid to make a little noise-knew change was necessary. Within three weeks of his arrival in Chicago, he laid off 13 of 55 staff members, including the majority of the department heads, to cut costs.
"It was very difficult to get people over the hurdle that I was here, sent with the purpose of effecting tremendous change in a very short amount of time," Mr. Baer said. "Very early on we dealt with perceptions of me having unrealistic standards, when the reality in my mind was that my standards are just different from the standards that had been enforced here, because our business model was changing."
Today, the Chicago operation has about 85 staffers, with an eight-member executive committee in which Mr. Baer is the only career direct marketer. As marketing services become increasingly diverse, he recognized the importance of signing on leaders who were "media blind, media neutral."
Confident, but not arrogant, Mr. Baer described his executive team members as "better than me in at least one or two things and not afraid to challenge me and my thinking." His founding principles for the office are honesty and integrity, in addition to intolerance of substandard work. He holds open-forum meetings with the entire agency staff, in which employees have become comfortable enough to ask anything from why he laid people off to when will the office get a new toaster.
And Mr. Baer remembers where he came from. "I'm less than 14 years removed from being a secretary in the New York office of Cobbs & Brady," now Draft Worldwide, where he got his start in the business at age 20, making "$17,000 a year plus overtime."
When he joined Omnicom Group's Rapp Collins in 1996 as an account director in the New York office, Mr. Baer told the agency president: "You've got to know that when you hire me you're hiring somebody different, and you have to be OK with that." Apparently it was OK, since Mr. Baer rose to head the account management department in that office.
Andrea Trotenberg, exec VP-executive creative director of Rapp Collins' Chicago operation, has worked in the office for eight years under three different bosses, and said Mr. Baer is "the first one who had more of an appreciation for advertising and more of a marketing strategic orientation."
Although the creative department has been stable for several years, she said, the Chicago office as a whole had been in a state of flux. The biggest change she's seen since Mr. Baer's arrival is that the office is back on the map as a serious contender for coveted accounts.
"It feels like we're a player, and I would say a year ago we weren't a player. ... The place is not project oriented. We are viewed much more highly by our clients as strategic partners," Ms. Trotenberg said.
Mr. Baer believes his greatest challenge in Chicago was "walking into an office and seeing 50 pairs of scared eyes" staring back. "I knew these people had absolutely no reason to trust me. I wouldn't have trusted me. I was from New York, and I was chosen from corporate."
Chosen because he was determined to be a strong soldier for Mr. Speed's commanding vision.
Mr. Baer "represented a lot of the skills and characteristics of an evolved Rapp Collins that was to place a much greater emphasis on business and marketing strategy, and also take a broader perspective and [create a deeper] relationship with the client," Mr. Speed said. Previously, "we were involved in the Chicago office primarily in the execution of direct mail, which was not reflective of what we were doing on a national basis."
Now the office looks for "fewer, deeper, stronger relationships," Mr. Baer said. He tells clients: "If what you're looking for is an agency to crank out the direct mail, we're a very bad value." A month after he came on board, Mr. Baer turned down a $250,000 offer from an entertainment company to produce 18 direct mail concepts in two weeks, even though he said the agency then "was desperate for revenue."
Because of the agency's growth, Mr. Baer is still looking to find about 25 people to join the Chicago operation's push for more wins. "We are a team," he said. "We live and we die as a team."
Copyright January 2001, Crain Communications Inc.