At 10th year mark, Williams tells what’s ahead for Element 79

CALL IT AN EARLY BIRTHDAY SHOUT-OUT.  In September, ad agency Element 79/Chicago will celebrate its 10th year in business.  We wanted to know from Element 79 leader Brian Williams what it has been like to shepherd a young agency through what has arguably been the toughest decade in the history of the Chicago advertising industry.

Certainly, Element 79 has seen its share of those difficult moments, including the loss of a huge chunk of PepsiCo business and, more recently, the departure of the Cricket telecommunications account.

The shop also lost out in the recent Cracker Barrel restaurant chain agency review to another Chicago shop, Euro RSCG.

Still, Element 79 is forging ahead.  Williams just selected one of the agency’s longstanding creatives, Canice Neary, as the new chief creative officer.  And the hunt for new business goes on. Here are some of Williams’ thoughts on several topics on the eve of Element 79’s 10th anniversary.

Q: What prompted you to open an agency 10 years ago?

Element 79 CEO Brian WilliamsWilliams: I have always had an entrepreneurial streak in me.  When the merger of True North and agency holding company IPG created a conflict situation with Pepsi and Coca-Cola, it seemed like the natural thing to do.  The bond between many of the agency and client people was incredibly strong, and no one wanted to see that end.  It was a risk at the time but, fortunately, it all worked out.

Q: What was the biggest challenge in the early going?

Williams: We never intended to be an in-house agency for Pepsi.  So, it was critical that we win other new business rather soon, so we wouldn’t be saddled with that image.  Again, we were fortunate to do so as Supercuts and Alberto Culver were added to our roster about a year later. And, both remain clients today.

Q:  How tough was it to navigate the mass exodus of the Pepsi business?

Williams: Pepsi departed in 2008, and the toughest part was having to sever ties with all of the great clients we were working with at the time.  We’d been working with most of those people for all seven plus years of our existence.  We were sad about the situation and I believe they were too. But, client shifts are just a part of the advertising business.   Since then we’ve only looked forward, never backward.

Q:   You’ve just named a new creative chief.  Explain why you went in-house with Canice Neary.

Williams: When the search was launched we had just two key criteria.  First, he or she had to have great skills in leading, motivating and recognizing great creative work.

Second, the person needed to have a strength of personal character that dovetailed well with that of the agency.  There exists a strong culture at Element 79, and it’s built on a foundation of integrity, hard work, a caring for others, a sense of taking personal responsibility and resourcefulness.

Canice Neary, promoted from within as Element 79’s creative chief We identified two outside candidates and Canice Neary from inside Element 79.  In the end, Canice was an easy decision because of his creative skill set, his personal character strengths and his familiarity with our people and existing clients.  And, he’s been outstanding in his new role ever since he assumed it.

Q:  Looking ahead, what are your goals for Element 79 in the next 12 to 24 months?

Williams: The goals are pretty simple. We want to win new business and continue to deliver for current clients so we can grow revenues at a 15 percent or higher rate per annum. How we do so will be by continuing to bring more digital and fully integrated solutions to our clients and do so in ever smarter and faster ways.

We are proactively using upfront consumer feedback to help evaluate our ideas and work. We are also working with clients to streamline operating processes to ensure that better ideas and work is identified in ever shorter time frames.


Energy BBDO’s Samuels beefs production with 8 new staffers 

Rowley Samuel, Energy BBDO’s new head of integrated productionENERGY BBDO/CHICAGO is beefing up its production department. Rowley Samuel arrived from DDB/Chicago last December as Energy BBDO’s new head of integrated production. Since then Samuel has added no fewer than eight production staffers.

Based on a statement he provided to us, Samuel clearly is looking to wind up with a production team with a wide range of capabilities.

“Our clients are looking to us for holistic ideas beyond TV and print, and we need to be able to deliver those solutions,” said Samuel. 

“We’ve added and are still adding to the department across the board, both to diversify the skill set of the production talent, and also to be able to produce in-house as much content (as possible) of the highest possible quality,” added Samuel.

Energy BBDO’s new production chief said he found one new post-production assistant by asking applicants to complete a creative assignment with an extremely tight turnaround and guidelines that were open to interpretation. This was like “something they may be asked to do in their day-to-day at an agency,” Samuel explained.

Samuel’s eight newest hires are: Liliana Vega, production coordinator; Ashley Geisheker, integrated producer;  Sarah Tomick, production associate; Meagan Moore, integrated producer; Mariana Perin, integrated producer; Danielle Keenan, integrated producer; Dustin Camilleri, post-production supervisor, and Dave Heniff, post-production assistant.

Samuel and his crew may be facing plenty of new assignments should Energy BBDO prevail in the $1 billion S.C. Johnson account review that is nearing an end.

Energy BBDO is believed to be one of the finalists in the pitch.

Lewis Lazare’s column appears Tuesdays and Thursdays in ReelChicago. Contact him at