DraftFCB’s O’Keefe: ‘Chicago Guy’

CHICAGO Tom O’Keefe is a “Chicago guy.” He was born and raised there and gets rankled when outsiders refer to the town as “the Second City.”

But he’s probably best known for campaigns he created while leading FCB in San Francisco, notably Amazon.com’s “Sweatermen” and Taco Bell’s “Think outside the bun” efforts.

As CCO for DraftFCB, Chicago, O’Keefe, 44, has been trying to integrate the Chicago offices of FCB and Draft, a task that puts him in charge of one of the largest creative departments in his beloved hometown.

Q: You’ve spent the better part of the year trying to get two very different agencies to work together. How hard has it been to integrate these departments?
A: At times it’s been a huge challenge because of the massiveness of both departments and pure scale. But in terms of having a shared vision and understanding of what we’re trying to do, it’s a lot easier than I thought it would be.

How far do you have to go?
From a structural standpoint, we’re there. I think it won’t be until we have something that we can internally point to and can hold up to the industry and the public as a result of the integration that we’ll truly be there.

What will be your measure of success? Winning a Grand Prix? Or client

It’s a little of [both]. Success will be a big idea that has been executed brilliantly across different channels. The thing we have been focusing on is what the idea is. I’m not looking at it from a creative standpoint and the planner isn’t looking at it as a planner until we get an idea and can really run with it. Focusing on the idea has given us the chance to focus on something other than the integration or the merger.

How does the Kmart win validate the DraftFCB model, if at all?
It was a big win and we felt great about it. But to be honest, we feel validated by just talking to our clients and [having brought] the model out before that. From the outside, and a bit from the inside, it was a great win. But we’ve been feeling good for a while.

What has been the most pleasant or unpleasant surprise about the merger?
One of the most pleasant surprises was when we brought the creatives together. When one of the Draft creatives brought together a pop-up retail event for one of our clients. It showed a lot of people, me included, that creativity can be just as amazing for something that would be considered pop-up retail. There’s things like that that we’re learning. There is a sense that when the analytics and the data show how it works to our advantage, it helps creative get to a place where the answer is more identified.

What about the most unpleasant surprise?
Having to deal with the fact that at the end of the day, [people at both companies] are people. And everybody reads into things. We got so excited about the concept of the merger at the beginning, [we] didn’t realize [we] had to deal with people, and that for some people it would be uncomfortable about what it meant. The merger could overwhelm some individuals. We did our best to make everyone feel a part of it and we tried to be as honest with the communication as we could. But the lesson is that no matter what, there’s going to be [hurt feelings]. In Chicago you’re talking about 1,000 or 1,100 people [coming together].

I was told you think Chicago is getting an unfair bad rap.
I think Chicago may not be doing as great a job of defining itself as having a really strong point of view on advertising that’s unique to the city. I think we accept that Second City thing, as opposed to saying, “We’re where it’s at.” We’re middle America, where people who are consumers are connected with the sensibility that comes out of Chicago. Yes, we’re about selling and yes, we’re pretty direct about communicating to the consumer, but we can be as engaging as anybody, and have a real sense of brand. We should be packaging that and presenting that as something that we can be proud of as opposed to trying to be something that we’re not, or trying to be whatever the new, hip trend happens to be.

What work do you think the city should hold up as an example of that?
I’ve always admired some of the Bud Light stuff [from DDB] that celebrated the everyman in a funny way. I think some of the stuff that Burnett did. It’s mainstream, but not middle of the road. It makes you lean forward, but it does it because it’s relevant to real people and middle America.

What inspired you to get into advertising?
I grew up loving movies and loving television. And I felt what’s great about advertising is that you can do all that and still be a real person. The same thing that inspired me about advertising is the same thing that inspired me about everything. Music and art, and great, funny dialogue. It was loving those things that inspired me to get into advertising where you could apply that.

Name one person with whom you’re dying to work.
Quentin Tarantino. I still think he’s got a really great sense of pop culture. His dialogue cuts through catchphrases. Whether it’s a film or a commercial or putting a brand together, I’d love to work with him. He has a sense of wanting something breakthrough from a pop culture standpoint.

Who has influenced you the most creatively?
[DraftFCB worldwide CCO] Jonathan Harries. I’ve worked with him for 10 years and it’s like having a professor in-house. He can break down things in a way that opens doors and can get you to a great creative answer.

What’s the smartest business decision you ever made?
Going to California. It was a tough decision. I was happy here. But I had a feeling that I needed to go work someplace else and get a sense of what it’s like to be someplace else. It was great to be there and it was smart to come back.

What do you consider to be the greatest accomplishment of your life so far?
I would definitely say my family, though I don’t get to spend as much time as I like to with them. Professionally, it’s the relationships. I feel good about the relationships I’ve been able to make and to grow them. That’s what makes the business worth it.

What’s your biggest pet peeve?
Conducting business via e-mail. I really do miss picking up a phone or [someone] stopping by. Another pet peeve is the lack of follow-through on some things, where thing gets lost or a “great” idea slips [down] to “good” because you didn’t follow through.

How do you get past a creative block?
I’ve got enough things I’m working on that I can get off of one and get to another. There’s nothing like getting a change of scenery for a recharge.

What did you learn from your parents?
They taught me to always work hard and work harder than the next person. But I also came from a household where both my parents had really sharp senses of humor. You had to always be on your toes. When I look back at who I am and why I am what I am, that may be the best thing I got from them.