Traditionally the best local work was described as embodying 'the Chicago school of advertising': a down-to-earth, heartwarming style that was a point of civic pride like Frank Lloyd Wright's architectural style, and a way to differentiate Chicago work from Eastern and, later, West Coast agencies.
But the Chicago school has diminished, if not disappeared, leaving Chicago advertising without a clear identity and without its traditional shield against criticism that its agencies' work is unimaginative. Its passing also raises the question of whether cross-city agency inbreeding and mass culture are homogenizing advertising and eliminating all regional styles.
For years it was the identity of the Chicago school that attracted big advertising accounts to agencies here. But lately, the breakdown of the definition of that style, or at least the question of its power or sexiness, has contributed to several high-profile Chicago-based accounts going to more glamorous agencies in other cities. That has led to something of a question of confidence at Chicago shops, with some wondering if they have stayed at the packaged-goods creative fair too long, and others musing how a community of agencies with a weakened creative identity can compete against hot creative markets?
'We do some great advertising in Chicago, but you're not going to see a lot of the cutting-edge type work that's coming out of some of the hot agencies,' noted Ralph Rydholm, chairman/ceo of Tatham Euro RSCG. 'Seventy percent of what we advertise in Chicago, we put in our mouth. You want warm wholesome images for things you put in your mouth, not cold, angular, sharp, fast images for things you put in your mouth.'
By 'things you put in your mouth' Rydholm means food, such as cereals, snacks, candy, gum, soup, lunch meat, cheese, vegetables, baby food and tuna. Other 'in your mouth' categories include beverages, beer, fast food, vitamins, OTC medicines, cigarettes, and toothpaste.
'We don't have a lot of clients in the categories that look for the cutting edge work - travel, high tech, fashion and automotive,' Rydholm noted. 'We don't do much for entrepreneurial companies that are willing to take risks. We work for leading companies that make things for everybody and we write ads for people, not just for people in the ad business.'
Chicagoans long believed the school existed. It promoted 'family values' long before the Bush Administration did. It encompassed such advertising icons (also referred to as 'critters'), mostly born at Leo Burnett, as the Jolly Green Giant, Charlie the Tuna, Tony the Tiger, the Marlboro Man and Morris the Cat.
But it was more than anthropomorphism. Enduring slogans out of the Chicago school touched people in a way that empathized with the issues and emotions of everyday life and ultimately defined the companies for which they were created. Some of the most notable slogans include 'You deserve a break today' at McDonald's, 'You're in good hands with Allstate,' Hallmark's 'When you care enough to send the very best,' 'Kleenex says bless you,' and 'Fly the friendly skies of United.'
'I'm not sure there's a Chicago school of advertising anymore,' said Rick Fizdale, chairman/chief creative officer of Leo Burnett Co. 'I detect none.'
Many years ago, Fizdale noted, there were noticeable differences between the bodies of work created in Chicago, New York and the West Coast. Trends started on either coast were reflected in advertising. The Midwest typically caught on to trends and fads much later. Now every city is receiving the same stimuli at about the same time.
'I hear people talk about the Chicago school but I never see it,' said Lou Centlivre, the former Foote, Cone & Belding creative chief. 'The work coming out of this city is all over the place and I don't see much that's winning awards. How can you have a Chicago school when the work is so inconsistent?'
While Chicago agencies boast an impressive list of Fortune 500 companies and successful brands, fewer and fewer shops are recognized for creative excellence in award shows. Last year only one Chicago agency, DDB Needham, won a 'Pencil' in The One Show, sponsored by The One Club for Art & Copy in New York, and it was for an ad done for a pro bono client, the Lake Michigan Federation.
Even at The Chicago Show last year the same pro bono ad for the Lake Michigan Federation won 'Best of Show' and a number of medals were given to ads created for 'extra-curricular' clients (translate: clients for which agency-employed creatives moonlight).
'We are the second-largest advertising market, and we probably win the fewest awards as a city,' noted Jim Schmidt, executive creative director of McConnaughy Stein Schmidt Brown. 'Other, smaller cities are recognized as creative towns with more precedent-setting, risk-taking work. And although the Chicago award show has traditionally been a joke, last year I saw some great advertising out of some of the big conservative agencies. There are pockets of good work here.'
But is citing the large packaged-goods clients on so many Chicago rosters simply an excuse to do too much formula work?
'Some creatives hide behind the conservative nature of their packaged-goods clients to do mediocre work,' said Marshall Ross, executive creative director of CME-KHBB/Chicago. 'But others see it as a challenge. And when you see a spot that's well done for a can of peas - and some agencies are doing good work here for those kinds of products - you realize it can be done, and that's what we need to strive for as an agency community.'
'I think we are going to look back in 10 years and realize that a new 'school' was in development now,' said Amy Krouse Rosenthal, a copywriter who spends two days a week at FCB/Chicago and the rest of the week freelancing. 'There are a lot of talented people who are committed to staying in Chicago and doing good work. And good work is being done. The number of people who are willing to fight for good creative is on the rise. We'll just have to wait and see.'
Copyright Adweek L.P. (1993)