MIDWEST EDITION: THE "SUBPLOT" THICKENS: NOW THAT CHICAGO IS HOME TO FEWER BLUE-CHIP ACCOUNTS, MAYBE THERE'LL BE MORE SHOULDER ROOM FOR THE TOWN'S SMALLER SHOPS TO MAKE THEIR NATIONAL PRESENCE FELT.
When it comes to cutting-edge creative, there's still a perception that Chicago rates somewhere above, well, Cleveland. Burdened with aging packaged-goods accounts, many agency creative people believe the city, even in this age of virtual agencies and start-up mania, lacks the entrepreneurial flair of San Francisco, the hipness of Portland and the glitz of Los Angeles. The one thing Chicago could brag about-besides great blues, da Bears and da Bulls, of course-was its extreme client loyalty, but even that has come under fire recently, when Leo Burnett lost a lifer, United Airlines, an account the agency had worked with for 30 years.
Mike Fornwald, creative director at Chicago's Arian, Lowe & Travis, believes this latest trend spells good news for the small but dedicated "subplot" of agencies, as he calls them, determined to both improve Chicago's creative standards and sink their hooks into some blue chip business. Until now, this burgeoning underground, which includes AL&T and McConnaughy Stein Schmidt Brown-both of which have been profiled in these pages before-has been somewhat limited by its mostly local, mostly print-driven clients.
Pointing to creative stalwarts like Fallon, Goodby and Wieden, Fornwald explains, "They were the new wave in the '80s, but agencies can only get so big before not every client gets major player status." And that's where AL&T and MSSB see a chance to be part of a second wave, one that would make Chicago a viable option for interested clients. "With major accounts checking out, the timing seems right," says MSSB creative director Jim Schmidt. For agencies like his, he adds, "there's a greater sense of possibility now."
Four years ago, Schmidt might not have said this, and certainly not with the same degree of confidence. At the time, his agency was going through a thorough revamping, complete with new partners, a new name and an almost entirely new client roster after the loss of its award-winning showcase account, Illinois Tourism. At the time, Schmidt described his agency as "a Midwestern Ammirati & Puris" whose work for clients like Walgreen's and True Value hardware stores was at once smart and understated. What the agency lacked, he felt, was a glamour account, one that would really put the them on the map. Late last year, it may have finally nabbed one: BMW Central, a $10 million New York-based win that will mean creating upscale advertising for car dealers in 13 states.
But that's not all that's changed. With the recent addition of the dealer group, the 10-year-old agency's billings have nearly doubled, from $40 million in 1993 to close to $80 million at the end of 1996, with half of total billings now earned from national business. In addition to Walgreen's, MSSB's biggest client, its roster now includes the Spiegel catalog, Bunn coffeemakers, Wickes lumber, Bungee software, Rio Bravo Cantina, Outer Circle (a maker of lunch boxes and coolers), Illinova Power Co., Chicago Title & Trust bank and Navy Pier, a local tourist attraction.
And while the agency's smart creative reputation has been most visibly centered on its work for Walgreen's, both Schmidt and MSSB chairman and CD Tom McConnaughy say the agency is ready to make a bolder statement. "We're still a solid conceptual agency," Schmidt says, "but we're a little more adventurous now."
And the agency has the awards to prove it. A print campaign for Oscar Isberian rugs, a local carpet store, won both a Gold and Silver Clio and a Gold Lion at Cannes last year. The ads are simple, with pithy one-liners, like "Allah is in the details" and "At last, something from the Middle East that doesn't clash with everything around it." Ditto for another Gold Clio winner last year, a print ad for 321 East restaurant that reads, "How good is our steak? Last week a man who was choking on a piece refused the Heimlich maneuver." Even commercials for Walgreen's have a bit more attitude. In a new spot poking fun at their more chic competition, a customer leans over a tuxedoed piano player to reach a box of cotton balls.
At the same time, the agency is becoming more adventurous on the business end, having added two new account planners, one from Saatchi & Saatchi/London and another from BBDO/Toronto. The planning push, says McConnaughy, has helped to "strategically ground the agency as it grows."
It's a change being copied, though less formally, at AL&T, where the ditching of focus groups in favor of more broad-minded research has ultimately given the agency's creative "more latitude," according to Fornwald.
Back in the spring of 1992, AL&T was a former business to business agency reveling in hate mail received over its creation of a provocative Bill of Rights TV spot. That year, it also won more awards at the Chicago Addys (now The Chicago Show) than any of the city's top three agencies for a wise-cracking print campaign it created for Cool Down, a women's sports beverage.
Known then for its brashness, that latitude is now apparent both in the agency's work and its clients. The work is still clever, particularly for clients like the Lettuce Entertain You restaurant chain; an ad that broke last year shows a nun and rabbi connected by a single strand of spaghetti hanging out of their mouths, and reads, "Shrinking world, expanding menu." Another funny piece for Chicago Faucets taps an obvious selling point with "Live nude dancing. It isn't always entertaining," along with photos of a chubby guy hopping around in the shower.
Like MSSB, the eight-year-old AL&T has shown steady growth, from a $30 million shop in 1992 to one that now bills $45 million, thanks to the addition of several national clients: America Hawaii Cruises, Lettuce Entertain You, Sanford Pens, the automotive division of Motorola, an insurance company called Viaticus, and Home Access Health, currently the agency's largest account at around $10 million.
Yet, despite the solid upswing of both MSSB and AL&T, the idea of Chicago suddenly becoming a viable creative option for brand-name clients has at least one naysayer, namely former AL&T partner Gary Gusick. Back in '92, Gusick predicted that in five years his agency had the potential "to match the size and creative prowess of Goodby." But Gusick, who now runs The Ad Network in Chicago, has backed off that claim. He notes several factors that work against AL&T, or even MSSB, becoming a Midwestern GS&P, not the least of which is Chicago's lingering reputation for being a town lacking the same creative spine that San Francisco had with agencies like Riney before GS&P even existed. About his adopted hometown, Gusick points out "the Ed McCabes and Mark Fenskes have moved on."
"I have a lot of respect for what these guys are doing and their creative capabilities, but I'm not sure they'll get the kinds of juicy accounts necessary to really break out," says Gusick. "They're still not doing a lot of TV and, so far, most of their clients haven't hung around for more than a few years. Of course, the biggest drawback is the lack of dynamic leadership in this city to foster a real change."
Fornwald and Schmidt, whose agencies are both currently involved in several small- to mid-sized national pitches, have no delusions about picking up any McDonald's business right now, but Fornwald also acknowledges that the subplot's niche "is less about being billion dollar agencies and more about being aggressive and unburdened by bureaucracy. When clients think about creative, we want them to think Minneapolis, West Coast, Chicago."
"It's going to take more work to turn things around," adds Schmidt, "but ultimately, we hope clients will say, 'If BMW is there, then how dangerous can