Energy BBDO’s launches new WBEZ ads for tiny budget

For the first time in nearly a decade, Chicago not-for-profit public radio station WBEZ-FM (91.5) is getting ready to launch a major advertising campaign. The campaign will be designed to heighten awareness of — and expand the audience for — the station and its broad range of news, political and cultural coverage.

WBEZ has just tapped Energy BBDO/Chicago to work on the upcoming campaign.  Andrew Kasprzycki and Katie Clow represented Energy BBDO on the pitch.

Over the past several months Daniel Ash, WBEZ’s vice president of strategic communications, and Vanessa Harris, director of marketing at the station, quietly met with at least five local ad agencies to discuss their interest in the project, as well as their compatibility with the station’s marketing team and its goals.

The WBEZ board of directors, in particular Digitas/Chicago honcho Tony Weisman, provided counsel during the ad agency selection process.  Ash said Digitas was never a contender for the account.  “They are simply too swamped over there at the moment,” said Ash. Last December, Digitas won the Sprint account.

The new campaign from Energy BBDO could include print, out of home, digital and even television. “We haven’t decided yet exactly what the scope of the campaign will be,” explained Ash.  “We first want to sit down with Energy BBDO and get their input on how the campaign should play out,” added Ash.

The end goal, Ash said, is “to solidify the WBEZ brand and grow the audience.”

Energy’s previous Art Institute work a factor

The win for Energy BBDO comes on the heels of the agency’s loss of the Illinois Lottery account, which was awarded in January to Downtown Partners/Chicago and digital partner Critical Mass/Chicago. 

Energy BBDO also has won several large pieces of business over the past year, including a significant chunk of home products behemoth S.C. Johnson’s global advertising account and, more recently, the Lay’s potato chip business, which  was moved from Juniper Park/Toronto without a review.

But, according to Ash, Energy BBDO’s previous work with the Art Institute of Chicago was an important factor that influenced his decision to go with the agency. “I liked what the agency did with that account,” said Ash.

The new relationship with Energy BBDO marks the first time in more than eight years that WBEZ has worked with any kind of outside ad agency. Ash said the last outside agency the radio station worked with was Leo Burnett/Chicago, though that relationship preceded his arrival at the station.

Goal is to broaden listenership — and supporters

While searching for an ad agency, Ash said he discovered executives at many of the shops he talked to were already quite familiar with the WBEZ brand and were fans of its programming.  Ash hopes WBEZ’s new marketing initiative will create similar bonds among a larger swath of local listeners and thereby boost the station’s ratings.

“We want to get more people to listen to the station more regularly,” noted Ash. While every radio station wants to boost ratings, such an improvement wouldn’t necessarily immediately translate into more funds for WBEZ, because the station does not carry paid advertising.

Rather, Ash said he hopes new listeners will eventually become supporters of — and individual donors to — the WBEZ, which depends on grants and contributions for much of its operating budget.  “It usually takes some time for listeners to turn into contributors,” explained Ash.

One thing is clear about WBEZ’s new relationship with Energy BBDO. The ad agency won’t get rich from its work with the public radio station.  Ash said the entire budget for the new marketing initiative, including any media buy that is needed, will be under $100,000 — all of which will come from the station’s general operating budget.

Ash said the station could only afford a modest marketing budget, because WBEZ’s first priority is to fund programming. The budget for the marketing campaign could grow, Ash said, if the station secured a grant earmarked for marketing, but he isn’t counting on that.

Station embarrassment over Mike Daisey retraction

News of WBEZ’s new marketing effort comes just days after a very public embarrassment for the radio station and its high-profile program “This American Life” with host Ira Glass.

It was revealed that a popular episode of the show that featured performer Mike Daisey talking about tech giant Apple contained significant factual inaccuracies. Glass subsequently admitted mistakes were made, and aired a very public retraction of the episode with Daisey’s material.

Ash said he believes the incident won’t have much, if any, impact on the upcoming ad campaign. “We have taken steps to ensure something like this doesn’t happen again,” said Ash. 

“In the end,” he said, “trust is our only currency.”

WBEZ’s new ad campaign is expected to break this summer.

Contact Lewis Lazare at