Little Escape Pod pulled off big Cannes triumph

Scene from Wheat Thins Cannes contender

The 2011 Cannes Lions International Festival of — ah — Creativity ended  a couple of weeks ago. But the world’s most prestigious and most closely-watched annual ad competition still haunts us in ways good and bad.

What most weighs on our mind about it — in a good way  — is how one of Chicago’s small but mighty boutique ad shops managed to outshine every other shop in the city in a key category at the fest.

We’re talking about the Escape Pod, of course.  Admittedly, unlike Leo Burnett/Chicago, which picked up a couple of bronze Lions for its Allstate campaign, the Escape Pod got no award hardware at the fest.

But in a way, the Escape Pod did something far more remarkable really.  It managed to land no fewer than five spots (four pieces of work for Kraft Wheat Thins and one for Oscar Mayer Lunchables, another Kraft subsidiary) on the film category short list, from which the Lion winners are finally selected.

Given the thousands of submissions in the film category ( still closely watched even though many in the ad business consider TV spots hideously passe), the Escape Pod pulled off a major triumph  — especially considering its size compared to a Leo Burnett, for instance, which is probably 300 or 400 times larger than the Escape Pod.

So we wondered if Vinny Warren, who departed a cushy creative job at DDB/Chicago to start up the Escape Pod, had fully digested his impressive feat? Not entirely, as it turns out.

Warren sees agencies’ ‘lack of vision’ for poor showing

But as we discovered in a conversation with Warren on Wednesday, his Cannes experience prompted him to think even more deeply than he usually does about the business of running an ad agency here in Chicago and the overall lay of the land in the local ad community, still struggling mightily to reverse some pretty bad fortunes over the past decade.

Escape Pod’s Vinny WarrenyDespite all he’s witnessed through the years, Warren nonetheless confessed to being more than a little surprised the city’s ad shops didn’t have a better showing in the 2011 Cannes fest.

Yet, he thinks he knows what is at the root of the problem.  And he can concisely summarize it.  

“There’s a lack of vision at the agencies,” said Warren.  “Who’s in charge; who’s supplying the vision?” Warren continued to wonder out loud.

By that, we took him to mean Chicago ad agencies are suffering from an acute lack of effective leadership, something we too have grown more convinced of with each passing year as an observer of the local ad scene.

Though that “vision thing” obviously concerns Warren, he is quite happy, thank you, that he is at the helm of a successful boutique shop where his vision and leadership skills can shine through. And shine they have, as evidenced by the impressive roster of major clients such as Kraft, with whom Warren has had the pleasure of working.

What we particularly like about Warren’s vision and leadership is the way he has creatively pushed clients such as Kraft, —which was for decades nothing more than a painfully dull, formula-driven, but high-profile advertiser — beyond the boundaries of what they were comfortable with for such a long time.

Warren even got Kraft to greenlight the Wheat Thins spots that got the attention of the Cannes film jury.  Those spots are believed to be the first that attached a tweeting concept to advertising for a major packaged foods product.

The concept may have been innovative, but the final ads were also extremely well-executed — particularly in the choice of the male leader of the team that rode around delivering loads of Wheat Thins to fans of the product.  Warren said he found the actor in a Los Angeles audition and knew instinctively the performer had just the right edge.  “That actor got it,” said Warren.

There’s also something that Warren gets.  His experience has taught him that in the current advertising environment, bigger ad agencies are having a tougher time quickly adapting to a rapidly-changing industry, and they will most likely continue to struggle.

That makes Warren happy the Escape Pod is what it is.  “Smaller is absolutely better,” said Warren.


It still ain’t entirely over ‘til it’s over, but Energy BBDO/Chicago and the rest of the Northstar Lottery Group dodged a major bullet Monday when the Illinois Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of a Illinois capital bill that included provisions for the hiring of a private manager to run the Illinois Lottery.

Scene from the Lottery’s current “Cash for Life” campaign

That bill allowed Gov. Pat Quinn last fall to tap as Lottery manager the Northstar group, which includes Energy BBDO, Gtech and Scientific Games. Had the Supreme Court ruled against the bill, that management contract would have been immediately invalidated.

For now, Northstar is running the Lottery — at least until another roadblock presents itself, such as the state legislature possibly acting on the Illinois Auditor General’s grim report about the state Department of Revenue’s allegedly problem-riddled process for selecting the Lottery private manager.

But for all its talk about more aggressively marketing the Illinois Lottery under private management, the Northstar Group has been slow getting up to speed.  Energy BBDO has produced only one full-blown TV campaign for the Lottery in the past several months — that for the “Cash for Life” game. 

Still, an Energy BBDO spokeswoman reports Lottery sales are “up significantly this summer,” a time when sales usually see a dip nationwide.  Go figure.

Contact Lewis Lazare at