DDB quietly absorbs Element 79; Williams to depart

CEO Brian Williams to leave in a few months

Let’s put it this way. It wasn’t a good sign.

Quietly.  Ever so quietly, the deed was done.  Not in the dark of night, exactly.  But quietly.  So as not to disturb any positive thoughts gestating out there about the state of the Chicago advertising industry.

Yeah.  Maybe we were guilty of being too distracted by the fun and possibilities attached to the launch of the Pompous Society, a happy way to suggest there is maybe still some life in the old ad business here after all.

But truth has a way of intruding. Always. And there was a death in the family here a few days ago.  A significant death.  Element 79/Chicago was quietly merged into its Omnicom Group sibling DDB/Chicago.

The few handfuls of remaining Element 79 staffers — around 20 we are told — will move their belongings into the newly remodeled, opened-up space at DDB/Chicago, which will also become the new home for the couple of remaining Element 79 clients, La Quinta hotel chain and Supercuts hair salons.

Element 79 founder and CEO Brian Williams will depart when the transition is complete in a few months.

Some may shrug their shoulders and say “so what?”  There are those out there — the catty ones — who have long maintained Williams was long past his prime in a business that only values youth and a certain hip attitude.

Williams, some would say, represented none of these things.  Those catty ones would argue he was simply too out of touch with the new realities of the advertising business.

Williams stood traditional ground

That was, after all, a large part of the reason Williams’s former chief creative officer at Element 79, Dennis Ryan, left the shop a while ago for Olson/Minneapolis.  Ryan, we were led to believe, wanted to join a shop where he could aggressively pursue the ever-growing digital end of the ad business.

On that front Ryan ran into roadblocks at Element 79. Williams wasn’t so hot on digital.  Element 79 had made its way clinging to the more traditional end of the business. TV advertising. Print work.  That sort of thing.  Very old school.

Williams was of a mind it would be too costly for his agency — given where it was and where it had come from — to delve whole hog into digital.  So he held his ground. And tried to make a go of it without a big push into digital.

One could say that was the wrong decision at this point in the evolution of the ad business. But that is what Williams believed was best for his shop.  Unfortunately, the shop now is gone.

Peter McGuinness, DDB CEOBut please.  Don’t look for any blood on the hands of DDB CEO Peter McGuinness.  We’re told one won’t find any there. This wasn’t McGuinness’s doing, even though it is well known he is hungry for new business.  Even if it might be old business from another, defunct agency.  No, this merging, our sources tell us, was an Omnicom call.

Granted, La Quinta and Supercuts aren’t State Farm or Capital One, two of the blue chip accounts in the DDB stable.  But the new additions at least lengthen the client roster at DDB, and we’re sure McGuinness will agree that’s a good thing.

So what is Chicago’s ad industry losing as result of the merger of Element 79? An agency that began with such great possibilities for one thing.

Big budget accounts jumped ship

For the record, Element 79 was founded in 2001, when Williams, the former top honcho at Foote Cone & Belding/Chicago (remember that iconic, stand-alone agency anyone?), jumped ship with the prized Gatorade account and a significant collection of other Quaker Oats Co. business.

Those accounts were worth hundreds of millions of dollars in billings. And in the beginning they were a wonderful nest egg for Element 79.  The joint sprang to life rich in business and a beehive of activity.

But over the course of the past decade, the ad industry began to change.  And Williams and Element 79 felt the brunt of that change in the worst way. Something called loyalty departed the vocabulary of a lot of clients who looked to ad agencies to help them market their goods.

Suddenly, chief marketing officers began to think nothing of shifting accounts, both small and huge, from one ad shop to another. Willy nilly. Without warning. And for no good reason in too many instances. Except for the hope that somehow a change in shops might buy a CMO some time to get those bottom line financial reports in order before heads rolled.

As the business changed, Williams kept waking up and finding more of his Quaker Oats accounts were suddenly out the door. Until he work up one morning and found it was all gone.

Though he must have known at the time that this was not going to be good for Element 79, Williams put on a brave face and kept going.  But nothing could ever really make up for the huge losses inflicted on the agency when Quaker took all of its business elsewhere.

So we have a death in the family.  Yes, there will be new boutiques springing up over time. But maybe none with a client roster like Element 79 enjoyed.  Whether or not one admired what Element 79 was all about, it was an important part of Chicago’s advertising profile for a while. Now it is not.  But respect must be paid.

Contact Lewis Lazare at LewisL3@aol.com