DDB and Downtown Partners lucky two lottery finalists

And then there were two.  Late Friday afternoon — very late — Illinois Lottery private manager Northstar Lottery Group posted the two finalists still in the running for the Lottery’s advertising account.

Those lucky two are:  DDB/Chicago and Downtown Partners/Chicago. 

The winner will replace Energy BBDO/Chicago, which was dumped soon after Michael Jones returned for a second stint as Lottery superintendent in mid-October of last year.

The two finalist agencies beat out a field that began in November with more than 50 agencies expressing interest in the Lottery account.  After 13 agencies formally responded to the RFP, that number was whittled to just five in early December.

And the number in contention shrunk to the two aforementioned agencies last week — less than eight hours after the semifinalist shops had completed their creative pitches to a five-person evaluation committee that will decide the winner.

According to the initial game plan, the two finalists weren’t to have been announced until early this week, but sources say Lottery superintendent Michael Jones pushed the evaluation panel to finish up their tabulations sooner rather than later so the agencies wouldn’t have to endure this past weekend wondering and agonizing whether they were in or out.

Y&R bowed out of semifinalists

Initially there were five semifinalists.  But in fact there turned out to be only four after — to the surprise of some observers — Young & Rubicam/Chicago bowed out of the race last month, leaving only DDB, Downtown Partners, DraftFCB and Element 79 to compete.

Y&R’s decision was even more of a shocker, because the scuttlebutt on the street after the five semifinalists were revealed had Young & Rubicam pegged as a potentially strong contender.

We’re told no one at Northstar Lottery Group, which is handling the review, or at the Illinois Lottery was given a clear reason for Y& R’s abrupt decision to exit. But one source familiar with the situation said Y&R may have been overwhelmed with work on another review — possibly the Land’s End clothing brand — and simply opted to focus on that rather than spread its limited resources too thin and wind up winning nothing.

Now comes the final phase of the Lottery review process, which will require the final two contenders to present to the evaluation committee their staffing plans and expected costs.

Both DDB and Downtown Partners will be scored on this aspect of the process as well.  But this part of the competition is not likely to be a deal breaker if one of the two remaining shops entered this phase with a commanding lead based on the creative pitches last month.

Those creative pitches were weighted to account for more than 50 percent of the total score given to each competing shop — a reflection of the fact superintendent Jones wanted this review to be about creativity more than anything else.

That reality inevitably leads to speculation about which of the two finalists may have the upper hand at this stage in the expedited agency review.  Certainly this much can be said with certainty — the two finalists are vastly different operations headed by totally different kinds of leaders.

DDB — fronted by cocky (but not obnoxiously so) CEO Peter McGuinness and a well-regarded creative chief Ewan Paterson with a strong Scottish brogue  —  is in the midst of a turnaround after nearly a decade of decline in just about every way imaginable.

Once one of the finest creative outlets in the city, if not the nation, DDB/Chicago is trying to reestablish its creative chops — though that still appears very much a work in progress. 

Downtown Partners a creative powerhouse

Meanwhile, Downtown Partners simply has continued to go about its business without trying to make a spectacle of itself.  That is most assuredly not the style of DP creative honchos Jim Schmidt and Joe Stuart.

The agency may not be on everyone’s radar screen, but those in the know in Chicago ad circles know DP can be a creative powerhouse when it is in sync with clients and it is given the leeway to perform at full throttle — a scenario rarer than ever in the ad business these days.

Though notably smaller than DDB, Downtown Partners also has considerable experience in retail advertising thanks to a long association with drug store behemoth Walgreens.

And for all of its tendency not to flash its creative bona fides, Downtown Partners is on something of a roll — having produced one of the nation’s most popular TV commercials this fall for Walgreens.  That would have been the flu shot spot featuring identical twins Edith and Ellen, who instantly endeared themselves to millions of viewers because of the smart and subtle ways in which the commercial was shot.

Both finalists are Omnicom companies

For all their differences, however, DDB and Downtown Partners do have one important thing in common. And it’s an important commonality from a financial perspective.  Both shops are part of the Omnicom Group agency holding company. That means, whichever shop wins, some of the dollars from the Lottery account that drop to the agency bottom line will wind up at Omnicom.

So who will it be — DDB, now trying to pull itself back up from near collapse — or Downtown Partners, low-key and quirky, but unquestionably creative?

We don’t make a habit of betting — on anything. But we’ll step out on a limb and put our money on Downtown Partners.  The winner should be announced on or around Jan. 20, with the debut campaign from the new shop starting in early February. 

See you at the winner’s circle.

Contact Lewis Lazare at LewisL3@aol.com