Much more required for Chicago to be hot ad center

Screen grab from DraftFCB’s KFC holiday spot

We dread it.  We shouldn’t, really.  Yet we always do.

It’s time to ask the question that always rises to the top of the bin right about now:  What kind of year has this been for the Chicago advertising industry?

Why should it be such an unpleasant question?  Well, because we always hate to face the hard cold facts once again and try to draw some conclusions.

But let’s plunge in, shall we?

First, let us say this was the year when we noticed more than ever before that mid-sized shops — shops that shouldn’t necessarily be the ones hogging the spotlight — found their way there.

We’re talking about agencies such as HY Connect, Schafer Condon Carter, Commonground, Tom, Dick & Harry and Two by Four that seem to be making the most impressive strides.  They are winning new work.  Stretching themselves in interesting ways.  And giving everyone else in the ad business around this town reason to wonder why the same can’t be said about them.

But for all the good stuff that seems to be happening to those shops wedged in the middle, the same most certainly cannot be said within that segment of the local ad world where we desperately need to see the most activity. That would be in the realm of boutique shops.

Daring needed for city to be hot ad center

If it is ever going to realize its full potential as a hot ad center, Chicago must be the kind of place where unexpected, cutting edge, interesting work can be produced in a boutique setting. Sadly, however, that is not happening.

Which suggests to us something is inherently wrong with the business in this town.  Nobody feels comfortable enough — or should we say daring and brave enough — to set up shop and compel the world to take notice.  

Are the kind of ad folk we get here too lazy? Too insecure?  Whatever the case, these sorts of souls are simply not making a stand in Chicago.  And from all that we can see, the ad business — and more importantly its image — is suffering greatly as a consequence.

We do desperately need more shops like the Escape Pod and its indomitable leader Vinny Warren. Several years ago, Warren could have been classified as the leader of a boutique ad agency.

But Warren has grown out of that designation, as evidenced by tonight’s christening of what look to be impressive new offices in the West Loop neighborhood. 

The Escape Pod now is getting massive advertising assignments, such as a Toys ‘R’ Us holiday project that included no fewer than 70 TV commercials.  Holy cow.

It’s all good for Warren, who hasn’t ever been afraid to put himself or his work out there — slings and arrows be damned.  But who is going to replace him and the Escape Pod on the roster of boutique shops left in Chicago?  No one yet, so far as we can tell.

Big agencies don’t contribute to city’s buzz

But just as troubling as the lack of activity within the boutique ad shop world is the isolationist attitude that prevails within the city’s larger agencies. 

We wrote earlier this week about the business of creating buzz. If anyone at any of the city’s remaining handful of large agencies happened to read that treatise, we suspect they had to race to their respective dictionaries for a definition of the term.

Because if there is one thing lacking in these large shops that should most assuredly be there, it is buzz.  It’s sad, really.  If the leaders of these shops are busy doing anything, they certainly are not trying to establish clear, exciting identities for the agencies where they draw hefty paychecks to do whatever it is they are doing.

Unless a gun is put to their heads by clients, these agencies don’t seem particularly inclined to share work.  To discuss work.  To in any way contribute to the job of making Chicago pop as a advertising hot spot or, at the very least, to present themselves as happening places determined to make a mark. 

We will say that Cavalry, the new agency on the block with a very important task of redefining beer advertising via work for Coors, has certainly tried to do things right.  They understand what they are about at Cavalry, and they have been more than gracious in trying to sharing this with the world.

We only hope that pointless veil of silence that has fallen over most of the rest of the large agencies doesn’t finally fall over Cavalry as well.  It would be most unfortunate.

DraftFCB’s unzipped mentality a welcome change

The other exception to the zipped-up mentality has been DraftFCB.  Until this past year, this was an agency that also had more than a bit of a fortress mentality about it.

DraftFCB was, for a while, the biggest shop in town.  But then disaster hit in the form of major client defections. And voila.  A changed mentality. Now the leaders talk.  The work, such as the agency’s new holiday campaign for KFC, is put before us to consider.

And everyone inside DraftFCB appears to be working overtime to make public the fact that the shop is reworking itself in a way that might attract new business — something that hasn’t really rushed into the city in a really big way anywhere this year, now has it?

So is that what it takes nowadays?  Must utter disaster strike before people in the big shops wake up and get it? 

But back to the question we asked at the beginning of this piece. What kind of year has it been in the Chicago ad industry?  Good and bad.  A mix. 

Sorry. This is the Chicago ad industry.  It is what it is.  

Contact Lewis Lazare at