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More on the situation at Element 79/Chicago. To answer the most pressing question first. Yes, the agency is searching for a new creative leader to replace Dennis Ryan, who is exiting to become chief creative officer at Olson/Minneapolis.Sources tell us Element 79 is well along in its search for a new top creative with energy and vitality who can help the company land some new business pronto. Candidates in Chicago and beyond are being considered, we're told.

Element 79 has recently picked up at least one new piece of business, the La Quinta hotel chain. But that probably won't be enough to compensate for the possible loss of its Cricket account.

Element 79 is making its pitch next week to retain the Cricket account, which is certainly one of the shop's biggest and most lucrative accounts. Element 79 will be making that pitch, most likely, without a top creative to lead the effort. Sources inside Element 79 insist the shop is prepared to make a strong pitch, though many observers outside the shop say it might require a miracle of some sort for the agency to hold on to the business.

As for Ryan, no one inside Element 79 apparently believes he left at this crucial moment because he feared the Cricket pitch would not go well. Rather, sources say Ryan was eager to remake himself as an expert in social media, digital and all other aspects of advertising on the cutting edge. And so the story goes, Ryan apparently felt he could best achieve that transformation by making a new start at an agency such as Olson.

DennisRyan_Snowmen.jpegA lot of folks have been wondering for some time about the future of Element 79/Chicago. Now that its chief creative officer Dennis Ryan is exiting to become chief creative officer at Olson/Minneapolis, the wondering is sure to reach an even more fevered pitch.

The truth of the matter is Element 79/Chicago has been a shadow of its former self since PepsiCo pulled out vast chunks of business over a very short of period of time several years ago. Ryan and CEO Brian Williams never could find the new business needed to patch up the gaping hole the major account losses left in the agency's client roster.

Ryan is now jumping to a Minneapolis shop that bills itself as one of the top 10 independent full-service agencies in North America. That may very well be the case, but what Olson doesn't have is a high profile creative reputation. Is Ryan the creative person to give them that? Some astute observers in the local ad community seriously doubt that Ryan could, given his inability to help pull Element 79 out of the deep hole it fell into after the PepsiCo pullout.

If nothing else, however, Ryan has proved savvy at keeping one or two steps ahead of any troubles that might be threatening to befall him. He could see the walls closing in around him at JWT/Chicago, when he jumped to Element 79. And some speculate that could have been the case as well with his decision to jump to Olson.

But the question remains: whither Element 79? Will the shop finally merge with DDB/Chicago, as many have suggested could be a relatively painless way to deal with Element 79's uncertain future?

Or will Williams try to go out and find some hotshot creative whippersnapper who could transform the shop overnight and make it the hot spot it hasn't been in quite some time. Some might say it's never been a particularly hot shop, but we'll leave that discussion for a later date.

For now, we will watch and see what success Ryan has in Minneapolis, where he will eventually relocate. Ryan starts his new job Mar. 7.

The deal apparently calls for Ryan to live in Chicago for the next year and commute four days a week to Minneapolis and work one day a week at Olson's Chicago office, which is currently the outpost for Dig Communications, a public relations firm Olson recently acquired.

That one-year window should give both Olson and Ryan ample time to decide if the marriage is going to work. An Olson spokeswoman said Olson expects to expand its Dig operations in Chicago into a full-service advertising agency at some point in the future.

Ryan had this to say about the new gig: "I can't think of a more exciting creative job right now than mashing upon really smart marketing specialities into new brand ideas at Olson." There you go.

Olson clients include Lipton tea, Amtrak, Target, General Mills and Fifth Third Bank.

It's certainly not the Christmas present DraftFCB/Chicago would have wanted. But S.C. Johnson, one of the agency's longest-standing and biggest clients, said Wednesday it is putting its entire portfolio of brands into review.

A S.C. Johnson spokeswoman said Thursday that DraftFCB will defend the business. If the agency emerges victorious from the review -- a big if in the eyes of some observers -- a major bloodbath at the agency could be averted.

One source familiar with agency staffing estimated that a loss of all the S.C. Johnson business could result in as many as 200 to 300 layoffs at DraftFCB. This would be catastrophic for DraftFCB and for the Chicago advertising industry, which has been reeling for several years now from agency downsizing and wave after wave of client defections.

Speculation immediately turned to which local shops might be able to win the business and keep it here. But the list of viable prospects doesn't look to be very long. Leo Burnett might be reluctant to participate because of its close ties to Procter & Gamble, but sources said there don't appear to be any major direct conflicts on the agency's client roster.

Some mentioned Energy BBDO, but it might be too small unless it managed to partner with other Omnicom agencies to create a global network. Element 79 has been mentioned as well. Agency leader Brian Williams headed up Foote Cone & Belding prior to its merger with Draft. He is very familiar with S.C. Johnson. But Element 79 also would have to partner with other Omnicom shops to create any global heft -- an arrangement that might be awkward at best.

But there's another intriguing scenario that has been mentioned. DDB/Chicago could appoint Mark Modesto as its new president and CEO, thereby paving the way for him to help the agency land the S.C. Johnson business.

Modesto had been in charge of the S.C. Johnson North American business at DraftFCB until he was abruptly ousted in August. But it's unclear how favorably he is now viewed within S.C. Johnson because of the fallout from his departure from DraftFCB. The addition of the huge S.C. Johnson account would be a major boost to the beleaguered DDB.

The ineffectual Rick Carpenter resigned as DDB/Chicago president and CEO in early December.

It could be bad news for Element 79/Chicago, which, understandably, hasn't quite been the same shop since PepsiCo and its Quaker Oats subsidiary decimated the agency's client roster several years ago by pulling a number of high-profile brands out of the agency in quick succession.

Now sources are reporting that Cricket Communications is launching an agency review. Cricket has been a big part of Element 79's business in recent years. Reached by phone, Cricket's Rich Mackey, senior director of consumer marketing, did nothing to dispel the notion a review has commenced. He simply told us he couldn't comment on anything related to Cricket's marketing or any reviews that might be underway.

Telecommunications firms, of course, are among the most fiercely competitive businesses operating in the United States. Many spend large sums to try and lure customers from their competitors.

Mackey referred us to Cricket spokesman Greg Lund, who basically echoed Mackey's comments. Secrecy, apparently, is a large part of the way Cricket conducts its business. Lund did confirm, however, that the Cricket ad account has been at Element 79 for six years.

If any more evidence were needed (and we really didn't need any more, thank you), Friday's news that the Quaker Oats Co. is moving several of its core brands from Goodby Silverstein & Partners/San Francisco to Juniper Park (which sounds like a tree farm to us) in Toronto, further demonstrates that clients now believe they can simply move accounts around whenever the urge hits them and -- without missing a beat -- somehow wind up with a consistent, coherent, compelling advertising message. It's madness.

The very accounts Quaker is now moving from Goodby to Juniper Park were here in Chicago at Element 79 not that long ago. Quaker gave no cogent explanation why it yanked the more than $110 million in business from Element 79 at the time that agency lost the business, and it is offering up nothing but drivel as an explanation for the move this time -- stuff like the remark that Juniper Park has "a deep understanding of our consumer." Well, every agency seems to have that understanding when the business is coming in. But isn't it amazing how quickly that understanding seems to have disappeared when clients abruptly dismiss an agency?

If clients simply got back to demanding great creative from the agencies with which they have -- in many instances -- long and fruitful relationships, they'd be much better off over the long haul. The bigger problem, we fear, is that clients -- and particularly the chief marketing officers at many of these clients -- simply no longer have any clue what great, effective, memorable creative is. So they are incapable of recognizing it and differentiating it from the dreck that they often greenlight.

Art from Tropicana's 'Squeeze -- It's a Natural' campaign.jpgThe Tropicana orange juice brand is one of several iconic PepsiCo brands that exited Element 79/Chicago over the course of the past year. PepsiCo said very little at the time about why it yanked Tropicana and other ad accounts from Element 79, but it's always interesting to see what kind of work comes out of a new shop . The Arnell Group/New York got the Tropicana business from Element 79, and this month the first bits of a new campaign from Arnell start to go public in major markets, including Chicago, New York, Los Angeles and Boston.

The Arnell operation emphasizes design in its advertising work. So it's not altogether surprising to learn the agency has completely rethought the Tropicana carton in such a way that no one looking at said container could miss one point Arnell is trying to make in this new campaign, namely that Tropicana is a pure orange juice product. That point we got. But what was far vaguer and more troubling about this new effort is the campaign tagline "Squeeze. It's a Natural," which struck us as something of a major non-sequitur.

We kind of figured out what the "squeeze" refers to, but that "it's" threw us, because it is sitting there with nothing to clearly refer back to in the tagline except, of course, squeeze. And if that is indeed the intended reference, it's a muddled one at best. Neil Campbell, the Chicago-based president of Tropicana, suggested to us the tag in its entirety is trying to conjure some emotional connection between consumers and the brand, while underscoring Tropicana is an all natural product. Maybe. But to us the line is unnecessarily confusing, and that's never a good thing in advertising.
Lew's view: C+



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Lewis Lazare has written the Media Mix column for the Chicago Sun-Times for the past seven and a half years.

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