Good as Gold

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After nearly 20 years as a Chicago creative, Dennis Ryan has made a big move to a brand new shop - by walking down the street. The former ECD at JWT was hired late last year as chief creative officer at what was later named Element 79 Partners, the Omnicom shop built from the windfall of corporate consolidation and the resulting IPG/Omnicom struggle over the PepsiCo and Quaker accounts. "It's a gas and a giggle," says the 39-year-old Ryan. "I work for a $400 million startup. Not bad!"

Ryan made the leap, along with 119 others, to an agency that didn't even exist except as a promise. He was lured to the nascent shop by the monster PepsiCo and Quaker brands on its roster, like Gatorade, Tropicana and Aquafina water. Besides, after four years at JWT, he was ready to return to the Omnicom family, which had nurtured him during his 13 years at DDB, where he racked up plenty of Budweiser successes, including the "I Love You, Man" series and the football-playing Clydesdales. "Coming back to Omnicom feels good," he says. "I grew up there."

However, Ryan arrived to find his new office, on the 33rd floor of the DDB building, in chaos. "People were working out of four different places," he says. "We didn't have a name, let alone business cards." Mired in legal hassles over trademarks, it wasn't until February that the shop hung its shingle, taken from gold's number on the periodic table. To giggles all around, the staff had the elevator doors painted gold-"a loud gold" says Ryan - and wore gold ties to the unveiling.

In a rather awkward turn of events, the bulk of Element 79's staff was recruited from FCB by Quaker - Ryan had little or no say in the matter. "It could have been a recipe for disaster," he says. "We were always up against FCB at Thompson, and frankly, I didn't have a lot of respect for the agency. But I'm extremely pleased with the staff I inherited. We have people here who have dedicated their career to these brands. They came over because they liked the client and what they'd be working on. That helps me sleep at night."

Ryan not only didn't hire his staff, they actually hired him. One of the first to come over from FCB was Geoff Edwards, Ryan's former colleague at DDB. "Day one," says Edwards "it took me 20 minutes to find a trash can, and I had no idea who would be my boss. Bob Scarpelli [CCO at DDB] called and said, 'Don't worry. We're gonna get you guys the best.' I called Dennis immediately. 'There's a job available,' I told him. 'And I'd love you to be my boss.' " Ryan is well-liked, according to his colleagues, because he places a premium on balance and respect. "My goal is to create a culture that means something," he says. "A place where people are happy to show up Monday through Friday, and sometimes evenings and weekends. As we get new business we'll hire more people, but it's less a matter of staffing than of casting. We've all worked with immensely talented mental cases, and that's no good."

For now, however, Ryan must focus on the task at hand: the half-dozen spots slated to roll this month. What to expect? Judging from an animated Aquafina spot that broke during the Oscars, featuring the voice of Robin Leach commenting on the water's nothingness (a strategy developed at FCB), there will be few radical changes to the brands. Despite Ryan's penchant for humor, demonstrated in his Kraft work at JWT and fratboy jokes for Miller, he doesn't plan to tack laughs onto brands that are doing just fine without them. "I love comedy as an art form," he says, "but it's the emotional connection that's most important."

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