His own shop awaits O’Keefe departing from DraftFCB

Tom O’Keefe, soon-to-be-agency owner

Who could blame him.  On Wednesday, veteran Chicago ad man Tom O’Keefe probably breathed a huge sigh of relief, and simply said he wanted out.

Yes, out. 

Though details are still being finalized, DraftFCB North American executive creative director Tom O’Keefe said he will leave DraftFCB at some point in the not too distant future to do what a few of the braver souls in this increasingly irrational excuse for an industry dream of doing — start his own ad agency.

For the moment, O’Keefe said he prefers not to chat publicly about his future plans or his reasons for departing DraftFCB.  But, unlike former DraftFCB honcho Mark Modesto and some others, it appears O’Keefe is leaving on amicable terms.

 A spokeswoman for DraftFCB/Chicago said late Wednesday that  “we wish him (O’Keefe) great success as he pursues his entrepreneurial dream.”

It’s not hard to see why O’Keefe, who spent more than 20 years in the trenches at DraftFCB, would find that entrepreneurial dream pretty appealing right about now. These past couple of years at the agency he had called home for more than two decades have been nothing less than excruciating. 

More excruciating because for much of that time, O’Keefe was actually a key creative at Foote, Cone & Belding, the shop that was swallowed up by direct marketing shop Draft in 2006.

After the merger FCB, one of the legendary agencies in the ad world, became — truth be told — little more than an appendage to the new template that Draft honcho Howard Draft thought he was creating at the time.

O’Keefe went along with the game plan, apparently because the Draft folks, who were calling most of the shots, still believed in him as a creative leader and were willing to give him enough freedom to keep him happy.

Still, over the past couple of years it could not have been easy for O’Keefe to sit at DraftFCB and watch things begin to fall apart in the worst possible way.

Long time account losses painful

First there was the S.C. Johnson nightmare — $1 billion in billings out the door.  But just as importantly, this account had been a cornerstone of the Foote, Cone & Belding client roster that O’Keefe worked with for years before the merger with Draft. 

As if that weren’t enough of a blow, O’Keefe could only grit his teeth as both the Coors and Miller brands left DraftFCB just a year after S.C. Johnson.  But it was the Coors part of the business that had to hurt the most — as this had been another key account for many years at the former Foote Cone & Belding.

So, of course, O’Keefe could see it was time to make an exit and pursue a dream over which he would have far more control than whatever fate still has in store for DraftFCB.

It was never O’Keefe’s style to be a publicity hound.  He was never out there looking for press or necessarily expecting to get any. That was his style at FCB, and that didn’t change after the merger with Draft.

But we do know that of all the clients he worked with over the years at DraftFCB, Taco Bell was the one he enjoyed the most.

He was close to many of the people at Yum! Brands, the parent of Taco Bell, and executives there allowed him to have a whole lot of fun with the account.  And that was what O’Keefe wanted, it seemed, more than anything.

In conversations over the years, he confessed to a love for humor in advertising.  Being funny was a good thing, the way O’Keefe saw it, and he was a devotee of the art and craft of humor in advertising. 

Like us, O’Keefe was pretty particular about the kind of stuff he believed to be funny.  We didn’t always see eye to eye on that, but we’ve long maintained one’s taste in humor is a very personal thing.

Bryce to take over on Taco Bell

It’s perhaps fitting that one of O’Keefe’s last big moves as the man in charge of the DraftFCB creative for all of North America was to bring in Mike Bryce as a top creative at DraftFCB in southern California.

Bryce, who helped create some great advertising for Volkswagen at Deutsch/LA, will now be turning his talents to, what else, Taco Bell.  O’Keefe surely will rest easier knowing one of his most beloved pieces of business will be in good hands after his departure.

Now we will wait to see what comes of O’Keefe’s dream to open his own shop.  We can only hope that the new agency is based in Chicago, which as we noted in a recent column, desperately needs more boutiques to give the city’s ad business a sharper profile and more zest.

However it happens, though, O’Keefe will be realizing his dream.  His way.  And that’s got to be a wonderful thing for him to be contemplating right about now.  

Contact Lewis Lazare at LewisL3@aol.com