Ex-FCB exec Michael Fassnacht on his new role as the City of Chicago’s CMO
It’s an odd time to be talking about marketing a city. As the pandemic rages across the country and the death toll mounts, the last thing on a government’s agenda might be considering its brand. But amid the dire COVID-19 headlines, Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot found a lighthearted way to spread the city’s very serious stay-at-home message.
At home in casual clothes, the mayor in a three-minute video plays serious analyst, then she dunks on a miniature basketball hoop and scolds a friend on the phone for wanting to go out to get her roots touched up.
The video—which followed several days' worth of memes of a stern-looking Lightfoot photoshopped across the city to shame people into going back inside to slow the virus spread—has racked up more than 2 million views and, in turn, spawned another slew of GIFs and memes.
One of the forces behind that video is Michael Fassnacht, the German-born ad man who at the end of 2019 left FCB where he'd worked since 2006 and been CEO of the Chicago office since 2014. He’s been helping the city since March and assumed the title of chief marketing officer April 1. His salary will be $1 for the first year. He'll be employed by World Business Chicago, the city's public-private economic development arm.
Fassnacht, 52, will work “to ensure that all marketing, branding and business development activities are aligned with Mayor Lightfoot’s economic growth plan focused on inclusive growth across Chicago’s communities,” the city says in a statement. “A major task that lies ahead is the city’s efforts to develop a narrative for its recovery from COVID-19—which will call for major efforts to repair economic losses, unemployment setbacks and stagnant growth.”
The civic-minded Fassnacht will make for a good fit for the city, says Ellen Alberding, president of the Joyce Foundation, who worked with him on a pro-bono campaign related to Joyce’s gun violence work. She describes him as “very solution oriented” and “incredibly substantive...He really thinks about the issues and the policies around civic concerns and then applies his commercial skills to them.”
“It will be incredibly important not to gloss over problems, but acknowledge them, think of solutions and give hope you can solve them,” Alberding says. “You can sink into doom and gloom with 10 million people applying for unemployment. We’re facing some really significant challenges (from COVID) on top of the challenges that our city was already facing.”
Is this position necessary? Richard Edelman, CEO of PR firm Edelman, says yes. He has known Fassnacht from their work together on Boeing’s 737 Max and the board of tech-boosting nonprofit P33. The two became friends.
“Chicago needs marketing. The reputation of Chicago is so much below its reality,” dragged down by its reputation for violence and fiscal troubles, Edelman says. In truth, “it’s really one of the great places to live in the world.” Post-COVID, “I think it’s going to force everybody to reconsider how much global travel they want to do, where they want to live, what feels comfortable and safe and clean and good for my family. Chicago, check check check, you know? Chicago works.”
What’s different about marketing a city versus Lufthansa and Boeing? “Politics,” Edelman says with a laugh. “Cities are the accumulation of past history, too. I think he’s up to it. He’ll also be good at leaning on people like me to give him free work.”
Below, a conversation with Fassnacht, edited for length and clarity.
This is a difficult time to discuss marketing amid a pandemic, but part of your role will be helping the city rebuild. Tell us about that.
First, clearly, while we are in the middle of a very challenging crisis for the city, we have to start at least planning for the different phases of recovery. You can always think there are four phases. Surviving the crisis, which the mayor and the administration have done a great job of so far. Second, how to restart the recovery, restart and open the city. We need smart marketing and promotional programs, especially for restaurants and the hospitality industry. The third is winning the recovery. How do we think about business development, tourism from international and the coasts? And last but not least, probably next year, what is the new normal? Structurally and (through) marketing, how do we change the brand of the city of Chicago?
At the same time, I’ve already worked the last few weeks to help the mayor and (Deputy Mayor for Economic Development) Samir Mayekar, how to communicate with all residents about the high compliance rate for the stay-at-home order. I was fortunate enough to work on the "Stay Home, Save Lives" campaign. It’s not just promoting the city, it’s making sure our residents understand the importance of compliance.
How did that come together?
After Tuesday’s (March 24) behavior on the lakefront, the mayor was clearly not happy. We sat together as a team, and asked, what can we do? We came up with "Stay Home, Save Lives." It was used in the U.K. last week. We needed to figure out, how can we convey it in the best manner? We thought of the way to leverage the mayor in the home setting. We shot it last week, Friday night (March 27). Havas helped shoot and edit. That’s now at almost 2 million views across all platforms. For me, it’s more important it seems to resonate with an audience in Chicago that’s sometimes difficult to reach with more traditional government announcements. If it just changed one person’s behavior to stay home, I’m happy. That’s marketing at its best.
How do you reach different audiences when promoting a government?
You will see, as well, we’ll be launching a new, under this overall campaign umbrella, we need to think very audience-specific. We’re launching a sports interest-campaign Monday (April 6) called “We are not playing” as a subset of that. The key thing is to be culturally relevant. We can’t just say because we think it’s important, it resonates. One of my roles as a marketer, as a CMO, is to help the mayor to think through that and elevate our messaging to ensure that all of our 2.8 million residents engage.
Are you targeting based on communities that need to hear the message most?
We have some outreach focused more on African American audiences with Leo Burnett; we’re launching in the next couple days. Monday is more sports interest, which skews young and old. We’re thinking much more creatively. I told the mayor and Samir, not everything will work. We need a mind of experimentation. I’m grateful we have a great creative ecosystem in Chicago, that agencies like Havas, Edelman, Leo Burnett, FCB, McGarryBowen have stepped up and are providing their services pro bono. It’s great.
Why do you think they’re willing to do that? Is there a different civic spirit in Chicago?
Business leaders realize in today’s world, you can’t just be a business leader. You have to be a civic leader. My friend Richard Edelman, if you look at the trust index of CEOs, what they require for younger employees and consumers, they need to be civic leaders. The agencies understand that. When I called (Leo Burnett Group CEO) Andrew Swinand at Burnett or FCB, they ask, how can I help? The young millennial workforce loves working on projects like this, they’re passionate, so it’s a win-win.
We’ve seen the mayor become a meme in recent weeks. Did you expect that?
I got to know the mayor the first time six months ago. I think she is growing into this role. Everyone knows how hard-working she is, how competent she is. I think over the last weeks and months in this time of crisis, people have seen all the different dimensions of her as a human being. That’s why she’s becoming a meme, or her cultural relevance has increased. She’s an amazing human being, I think, who feels the pain all of us go through, but she also has the vision to think beyond the crisis. We’re all working with the mayor and for her to realize we need to be 100 percent focused on surviving the crisis in the best way possible, we also have to think about the future, send hope out that we will get through this together.
What’s your understanding of what the job will be?
My boss is really the mayor and Samir. The job will be threefold: One, connecting with people; I’m still learning. I’ll meet with aldermen, a lot of people still to meet. Second is coming up with programs and platforms and products to promote us to tourists, corporations, to talent. And third, executing the program. People, strategy and execution. I’ll build over time a very, very lean staff, but I’ll rely a lot on existing resources at Choose Chicago, the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs & Special Events and World Business Chicago. Anyone who wants to listen to my accent is invited to join.
We are seeing ads from car companies and restaurants that are capitalizing on their kindness during the crisis—car companies extending payment programs, restaurants doing free delivery. Can, and should, the city do something similar to promote its programs and relief plans?
I don’t know if I’d use the word "capitalizing." I think we’re just here as government in a time of crisis. We’re trying to help with programs. If you look at the COVID-19 response fund at the Chicago Community Trust and the United Way, I helped on the marketing side of that. The mayor’s done an amazing job with her team to build programs; my small role is to make sure people know about these programs and use them and can get through this very difficult crisis.
I know you were helping with census marketing for the city. What did that look like? Census Day was April 1, the mayor has obviously pushed for a delay. Are you adapting your messaging because of the crisis?
We are looking at a few programs to increase the response rate. At the same time, we’re pushing hard for an extension or postponement because it’s very challenging to ask our residents—some of our residents fear for their jobs, thinking about putting food on the table, paying their rent—to ask them right now to fill out the census. At the same time, we’re thinking of programs to launch when the peak of the crisis is over.
You’re not unfamiliar with promoting the city. You worked on promoting the Chicago Public Library, the city’s Amazon HQ2 bid, the Joyce Foundation’s gun programs. What was your favorite civic project?
I’m really biased toward working with the Chicago Public Library and the (Chicago Public Library) Foundation. It’s one of the biggest democratizers we have in the city. I’m happy how we repositioned. If you look at visitor numbers, Chicago Public Library is globally recognized, and it’s such an essential part of the community. One of my goals is, when we can go be physically back at work, I will be one day a week working at one of the branches. I don’t need a big fancy office. I’ll probably be one day at City Hall, one day at Choose Chicago, one day at World Business Chicago and one day at the libraries.
What’s your favorite branch?
Lincoln Park is my favorite. When my kids were younger, we spent a lot of time at the Lincoln Park Public Library.
Gut level, what are the biggest obstacles to convincing people to live, do business and travel here?
I think if you look at how people make decisions, the research, there’s a lot of rational drivers for vacation or a company moving. When people get here, come here and spend time, everybody loves Chicago. That emotion, that mental space of such an amazing Chicago, we have to create that feeling before physically coming here. Once they come here, they love it.
How do you do that?
You will see.
When the Chicago Tribune talked to you back in 2017, you were working on becoming a U.S. citizen. Where are you in the process?
I became a U.S. citizen a year ago. After the last presidential election, Friday morning I woke up and told my back-then 14-year-old daughter that we’d vote together in four years. She said, "That means you have to become a U.S. citizen." I said, yep, and got my paperwork. I’ve lived in this country for 20 years, over the last five years, especially after being immersed in Chicago, this is the greatest country I’ve lived in. I’ve lived in Germany, France, Africa—this is a great country, and Chicago is the best place I’ve ever lived in. It has welcomed me and my family with open arms. With all our challenges, with all our history, good and bad, it’s an amazing place to make a difference.
What’s your favorite soccer team?
Are you looking forward to the Chicago Fire playing at Soldier Field?
Absolutely. I am a huge fan of Bastian Schweinsteiger. I can't wait for the season to start and we can cheer.
A.D. Quig reports for Crain's Chicago Business