If ever a brand deserved to die, its name, surely, was Clio. The advertising contest gouged its customers, flooded the market and, as if that weren’t enough, humil" data-categories = "" data-popup = "" data-ads = "Yes" data-company = "[]" data-outstream = "yes" data-auth = "" >


If ever a brand deserved to die, its name, surely, was Clio. The advertising contest gouged its customers, flooded the market and, as if that weren’t enough, humil

Yet, Clio lives. This evening it s celebrates its 34th year with a two-hour show at City Center, followed by a buffet dinner at nearby Essex House. But it’s hardly business as usual. BBDO creative chief Phil Dusenberry, whose criticism of the old Clios rang loudest and resonated longest, goes so far as to call it ‘the first step toward respectability.’ It may take 11 more, but even Dusenberry believes the tarnished statute will someday see ‘its former luster and prestige restored.’
If so, the reason will be new owner Jim Smyth. A 52-year-old Chicagoan, who in 1986 cashed out of the post-production business for $14 million, Smyth comes across as the Victor Kiam of award shows. He’ll actually say, ‘I liked the Clios so much I bought the company.’ And, based on his performance since assuming leadership in February, there’s no reason to doubt him when he says, ‘I’ve always believed the Clios belonged to the industry – not to any one individual or any one company.’
Talk is cheap, of course, but running the Clios isn’t. Smyth already has forked over $600,000 to get the trademark out of bankruptcy, put up $1 million to run this year’s show (judging alone cost more than $100,000) and adopted an appropriately long view. ‘I expect to get my investment back in five to seven years by drawing administrative wages, but it’s not a primary source of income,’ he says. ‘I don’t need to milk the cow dry today and have to shoot the animal tomorrow.’
Even his acknowledgment of limits is refreshing. ‘Look, I’m not going to underwrite the losses forever, because there are causes much more worthy than advertising award shows. But if the industry truly wants it, if it feels, as I do, that the Clios are good for everybody, if the only thing that’s needed is some assurance that the industry isn’t being taken advantage of, then I’m here. I’ll put out the ledger sheets anytime anybody wants and say: Here it is. How do you propose I run it?’
If it sounds too good to be true, consider it another chapter in Smyth’s storybook life. His career as a film editor led to the 1972 founding of Chicago-based Optimus, which in 14 years became, in Smyth’s words, ‘the largest independently owned, most creative and financially successful post-production company in the country.’ Optimus’ reputation stayed ‘squeaky clean’ in a business often greased by payoffs. (‘Never bought anybody a leather jacket,’ Smyth says. ‘Never put snow on the table.’)
Optimus eventually attracted a subsidiary of Anheuser-Busch – no stranger to comportment itself – which came knocking just before the capital-gains tax was raised from 20%. ‘I didn’t solicit the sale,’ Smyth says, ‘but I knew in 10 minutes the offer was too good to refuse.’
Smyth hasn’t bothered ‘reading the right side of the menu’ since. He took up yachting, primarily in the Bahamas, only to discover his relative youth left him relatively alone. ‘My peers were all working,’ he says. ‘I couldn’t get anyone to play.’
Besides, Smyth stayed interested in advertising, even missed the likes of such Midwest stalwarts as Rick Fizdale, Keith Reinhard and Pat Fallon. (That trio, along with Jay Chiat and Phil Dusenberry, now makes up Clio’s executive committee.) ‘I’m used to working for those guys,’ Smyth says. ‘I did for years as an editor, and now, at the Clios, I guess I’m still their servant.’
He’s certainly content to act as one. Last month in Miami, Smyth let his 30 judges overthrow decades of procedural legacy. ‘It was the second day, the second screening,’ he says, ‘when someone yelled, ‘Cut! We shouldn’t be judging every little category. We should be identifying the best work in the world.’ ‘ Other judges agreed, Smyth says, the effect akin ‘to the Berlin Wall coming down in all of 10 minutes.’
So it is new Clio will recognize fewer winners in fewer categories. Only 70 or so gold trophies (1% of entries) and 140 silver trophies (2%) will be handled out tonight, for example. And, unbelievable as it may seem, Clio hopes to draw fewer submissions in the future. (The contest drew 7,100 entries this year, compared to 4,000 a year ago and 26,000 at its pre-fiasco peak.)
‘I’d rather the judges spend more time with less material instead of jamming in everybody and everything in the course of 12-hour days,’ Smyth explains. ‘The whole idea is to raise the benchmark.’
Just raising Clio from the dead is no small feat. There have been more twists and turns to this story than any in recent history. But if Smyth actually turns the Clios around, if he performs as many believe he can, he’ll have given the story its strangest twist yet.
Copyright Adweek L.P. (1993)