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Coincidence? The folks at Young & Rubicam/Chicago certainly say so, but coincidentally or not, the agency is about to part ways with Jim Reath, the top account executive on its big Sears account, just as Richard Gerstein, the top marketing executive at parent Sears Holdings, has exited the company to take a job with HP. Kevin Reilly, an internal candidate has been chosen to replace the departing Sears account person at Y & R, and agency management expected to have the deal finalized with Reilly by late today.

Gerstein, who had the top marketing job for the Sears brand before being promoted to the top marketing post at parent Sears Holdings, was known to be a big fan of the Y & R shop. But now, like a number of other Sears marketing execs in recent years, Gerstein is suddenly gone from the corporation.

That has left Scott Freidheim, currently executive vice-president operating and support businesses for Sears Holdings, as the parent corporation's interim marketing chief. No doubt the shift on the client side has left some within the Y & R camp more than a little worried about what's next for the Sears account. In recent years, it has almost become an axiom in the advertising industry that whenever there is a major shift in marketing execs at the client, major shifts in ad agencies almost invariably follow. Almost, but not always.

Whatever happens from this point on, nobody at the agency is willing to admit any connection between the Sears account management change and Gerstein's exit. In a worst-case scenario, a loss of the Sears account would leave Y&R with a huge, huge hole to fill in its client roster.

Nobody would say Y & R has had an easy time of it since they won the Sears account several years ago following an agency shootout with Ogilvy/Chicago after hedge fund honcho Eddie Lampert took control of Sears. Much of the Y & R work for Sears recently has focused on tools, appliances and electronics, while the retailing behemoth's clothing lines have been given relatively short shrift. But clothing lines still occupy a lot of space at Sears stores, and the expectation is that Lampert will have to start marketing these goods more aggressively or else jettison them from stores.

Brett Favre's Sears TV spot debuts

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BrettFavreJPEGPics__67466[1].jpgA month ago we wrote about Brett Favre's secret trip to Chicago to film a new commercial for beleaguered retailing behemoth Sears. The indecisive (and boy has he ever proved the truth of that descriptive) Favre was called into action to tout the debut of Sears blue electronics crew, a new team of blue-shirted sales clerks being introduced to help work with customers looking to make a purchase in the electronics department. At the time of our previous writing, we wondered if Favre would prove to be a great addition to the commercial, especially in terms of helping up the spot's humor factor.

Well, the commercial from Young & Rubicam/Chicago is finished now, and we have seen it. And we can say with complete certainty one thing about it -- it's not gut-bustingly funny. Not at all. The commercial's director obviously decided to keep Favre on a very tight leash. The new Minnesota Vikings quarterback mostly stares at something off-camera and issues very brief responses to his comic foil -- the blue-shirted clerk who plays his part very down the middle. Yes, we do get the message that Farve can be indecisive, but it isn't delivered with any comedic flair. We just get a grim-faced Favre going through his carefully-scripted paces. Perhaps if the quarterback had been given a bit more leeway to improvise, the results would have been far funnier.

jim screen_bw[1].jpgJim Reath has added chief marketing officer responsibilities to his current role as group account director on the Sears business at Young & Rubicam/Chicago. In his new role, Reath will help on new business pitches and report to Kary McIlwain, president and CEO of Y&R/Chicago. "Jim is doing a terrific job on Sears," said McIlwain, adding, "as the lead on this significant business, Jim is intimate with our full range of capabilities and knows our strategic and creative depth."

Reath joined Y&R in April, 2008, after six years at Leo Burnett/Chicago. He has worked across a wide range of categories, including Kraft, Morgan Stanley, Visa, Panasonic, Amtrak and Embassy Suites. Reath began his career in Canada, working for DDB Needham and Ammirati Puris Lintas. He also spent time on the client side, handling marketing for Labatt Breweries in Canada.

Chosen_stills_0003.jpgSears is set to unveil a new spring ad campaign from Young & Rubicam/Chicago on Wednesday. The new work pushes the various clothing lines available at Sears and makes clothing prices a highly visible part of each television commercial. The commercials carry a new tag line "Life. Well spent." The new tag comes in the wake of the tag "Where It Begins," which began to disappear from Sears advertising almost as soon as it was introduced by Y & R in 2007. With this new campaign Sears appears to be targeting consumers who have become very price-sensitive since the economic downturn began last year. The new TV commercials are not high concept, but do include plenty of images of young and older models wearing clothes from Sears. Another round of commercials featuring hard goods is expected a bit later.

Interbrand Design Forum, a respected retail brand consultancy, released on Tuesday its first-ever ranking of the 50 most valuable American retail brands.

And guess which retailer didn't even make the top 50? Yes, that would be Sears, the Hoffman Estates-based retailer that has seemingly been on a steady downward spiral since being acquired several years ago by hedge fund manager Eddie Lampert. The top-ranked retailer on the Interbrand list is Walmart, which seems to have triumphed over a lot of negative press in recent years about employee relations and other matters.

Best Buy was rated second, followed by Home Depot, Target and CVS. Deerfield-based Walgreens came in slightly behind CVS in seventh place. Several online only retailers did well in the Interbrand rankings too, including Dell computer company in sixth place, eBay in eleventh place and Amazon.com at No. 14. While Sears failed to make the list, several department store brands did: Nordstrom was twelfth, Kohl's was twenty-second and J.C. Penney ranked twenty-fourth.

"Successful brands bend and curve with the changing economy and continue to engage and deliver a unique experience to the consumer," explained Lee Carpenter, CEO of Interbrand Design Forum.

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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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