In Chicago, Dennis Ryan brings wit and cheer to JWT
Tell him he’s a classic beer guy and dennis Ryan, who spells his first name with a lowercase “d” because “it’s something to talk about,” will thank you for the backhanded compliment.
But the 37-year-old executive creative director at J. Walter Thompson, Chicago, blanches at the description, saying it is too limiting. His career success as a beer copywriter, though, helped JWT land Miller Brewing’s $60 million Miller Genuine Draft account in July 1999.
JWT’s new MGD campaign, tagged “Never miss a genuine opportunity,” broke two weeks ago. The debut ads show MGD drinkers cleverly stealing opportunity from odd moments. In one, a man seeking capital for his Internet site is inspired by a photo of a rich, dog-loving dowager to rename his Web site CaptainBarky.com in order to win funds.
Miller moved its account to JWT without a review after quirky campaigns from Wieden & Kennedy, Portland, Ore., failed to increase sales. So far, the response to the MGD ads has been “a chuckle and a clear understanding of what the brand’s about,” says Robert Mikulay, Miller’s svp of marketing.
“Part of the beauty is it feels simple, lighthearted and tongue-in-cheek,” Mikulay says. “We needed to restore the Miller Genuine Draft voice,” says Ryan, who describes the campaign as witty and welcoming. “If it sells beer, I will happily toe dance down Michigan Avenue.”
In his 16 years in advertising, Ryan has written many beer spots. The Harrisburg, Penn., native made his entry in the category with a 1984 Michelob Dark campaign called “Don’t be afraid of the dark” for Needham Harper Steers, Chicago, his first agency job. The ads featured actor Martin Mull, who joked about people’s misconceptions of dark beer.
Ryan’s work for Anheuser-Busch allowed him to rise through the ranks of what is now DDB Chicago; his job title changed three times. In June 1997, after frustration with pitching creative to A-B, Ryan took the “head coaching” job at JWT. He replaced Rita Winters, who had led the shop’s creative since 1994.
“I thought maybe I might be able to help the turnaround,” says Ryan. Expanding JWT’s client roster beyond packaged goods is the key to success, he believes. “The only way to do that is to do good work for the clients in the grocery aisle.”
Humor pervades JWT’s new executions for Kraft, Nestlƒ, Nabisco and Blockbuster. The Miracle Whip ads have employed the Looney Tunes characters and the Harlem Globetrotters. A recent Blockbuster spot shows teens with thumbs mutilated by video-game playing and ends with a blister exploding on a cheerleader.
The spots are funny, but Ryan says the creative reel still isn’t where it should be. “I want to make myself miserable with worry that I’m not putting the 10 best spots on,” he says.
Many are waiting to see if the agency can rebuild its creative reputation; work languished following JWT’s ’87 acquisition by WPP Group. Due to budget setbacks and leadership changes at the Chicago shop, JWT has been slow to become the “destination agency” Ryan wants.
“We’re still waiting for the ‘big campaign, [from JWT]’ ” says Bob Scarpelli, chief creative at DDB Chicago. Ryan has his work cut out for him, but, Scarpelli says, “If anybody can get it done, he will.” Observers say a success with MDC could make the difference.
Still, Ryan wants to be known for more than beer ads. Not surprisingly, his colleagues and clients paint a broader picture when they describe Ryan’s impact on JWT’s creative reel and client roster.
Bob Merlotti, a former DDB colleague who joined JWT as a group CD in 1999, says Ryan motivates without cheerleading. “He comes in with his good-idea pants on.”
JWT president Brian Heffernan says, “He leads with his talent and enthusiasm. It’s not about one individual, it’s about lifting everybody’s game.”
“He focuses on building ideas that people bring to him and not breaking them down,” agrees Alan Jope, vp of marketing at Unilever. The company moved Salon Selectives to JWT in June 1999. “He can spot a ‘big idea’ from a thousand paces,” Jope says.
One big idea: Streamline the creative and collaborative process in the agency’s nearly 80-person creative department. Chicago’s new corporate mantra, developed by Ryan and Heffernan, is “simplify, surprise and sell.”
“We love to laugh,” Ryan says of the Miller team. “We’re big fans of the laugh.”