Having the agency she runs be recognized by Advertising Age's Creativity as one of the hottest creative shops in the country, let alone Chicago, was a gratifying moment for Kary McIlwain. But when Ms. McIlwain, the president-CEO of Y&R Chicago, accepted a Chairman's Award -- the most prestigious vendor recognition presented by retailing giant Sears, Roebuck & Co -- she called it a "Halle Berry moment."
It was the first time the WPP Group agency ever had been bestowed the honor from one of its most important accounts. Moreover, it was the first time any agency won the award in recent memory.
In reaching this pinnacle, Ms. McIlwain has come full circle from her first job at Y&R, New York, as an account executive during its glory days in the late 1980s and saw its decline in the early 1990s. If the then vice president and management supervisor hadn't moved to Chicago in 1993 to run the Kraft business, the "blue collar chic" from Berwyn, Ill., "would have left" the agency altogether, the 43-year-old says.
"I felt for the first time I was on my own and I could affect this thing," she said. A year later Y&R's entire Chicago-based portion of the Kraft account shifted to Chicago from New York.
When then President-CEO Howard Breen restructured the agency in August 1999, he saw that Ms. McIlwain had "something special" in the way she handled clients and co-workers and elevated her to executive vice president and managing director.
Then the agency got another windfall, thanks in a large part to her leadership. Sears, then in a severe slump, needed a makeover -- and fast. So the agency transferred the account from the New York office in June 2000.
"There was a new energy, a new vitality and a stronger relationship with the client because of her leadership," says Stephanie Kugelman, vice chairman and chief strategic officer, Y&R Advertising Worldwide, New York, who also is the managing partner on the account. In what became a shoot-out with sibling Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide, which shared the account, Y&R's creative concept for the "Sears. Where Else?" theme won out.
"She led the team at Y&R in helping us articulate a new brand perspective," says David Selby, senior vice president for marketing at Sears.
Substance, not B.S.
"I like to believe that if you earn it, it's about substance, not the B.S.," Ms. McIlwain says of her new business record. Last year, she was able to tap her Kraft and Miller Brewing Co. relationships to gain a footing as a Miller roster shop for new products. Observers believe the agency could soon pick up one of the brewer's core brands.
"I view Kary as one of the top managers in the Y&R network in the world," says Mr. Breen, now chairman-CEO, Y&R North America.
Ms. McIlwain is widely considered by staff and peers as a role model in balancing work and family. "I let go a lot more than I ever have and leave a lot of decisions up to a lot of people," says the mother of kindergartner son. She's instituted a wide range of employee perks, from flex-time to surprise days off meant to help boost morale despite the economy.
That's not to say it's always a cake walk.
She recalled "a big step as a leader" when six years ago the new mother called home to say she would be late since the H&R Block pitch needed refining. When watching baby movies later, she saw that her husband that night had been filming their son, Connor, and was lamenting to the baby about mommy's work.
"Everyday there is a new tape like that," she says. "Every day there are moments when it's not working but it tends to right itself by the end of the day."
Ms. McIlwain isn't ready to rest. She's in pursuit of a good financial services account. Her management goal is to keep the creative product hot but to grow it. "The trick is not to get too greedy," she says.