During four decades as a quintessential Chicago ad man, Ron Bess has steered campaigns for clients from McDonald's to Gatorade while climbing the ranks at some of the city's most prominent agencies.
Bess, a natural pitchman, well-schooled leader and unequivocally the Chicago advertising community's biggest booster, has navigated sea changes that have taken the industry from television to Twitter, from independent shops to international holding companies, and from suits and ties to T-shirts and jeans.
Although most of the colleagues he broke in with have long since left the game, Bess, CEO of Euro RSCG Chicago, shows no signs of slowing.
"I'm 65, and that's a very, very unusual number in this business," he said.
Bess has diligently evolved with the industry, discarding ties (but not his signature blazers), embracing all things digital and retooling the agency model to fully integrate traditional with cutting edge. By all accounts, it's working pretty well at the once-faltering Euro Chicago, whose fortunes have risen dramatically during his seven years at the helm.
Barely scraping by on direct marketing business when Bess arrived in 2004, Euro Chicago has significantly bolstered its digital and traditional advertising portfolio with recent high-profile wins, including Pucker Vodka, Cracker Barrel and Reynolds Wrap/Hefty. The agency is projecting 17 percent revenue growth this year and adding staff at a comparable rate.
"A lot of people didn't think this agency would survive, because it had fallen down," Bess said. "Now we're one of the fastest-growing and most significant-sized agencies in the community."
The Bloomington, Ill., native, attended the University of Illinois on a football scholarship, where his adaptability and tenacity made him an All-Big Ten player. The 6-foot, 193-pound halfback his first three seasons was named captain for his final year, in 1967. He was switched to defense back after suffering an ankle injury but adjusted quickly, proving himself the consummate ballhawk and setting the Illini single-game and single-season records for interception return yardage, marks that still stand almost a half-century later.
Bess, a marketing major in college, served in the National Guard after graduating in 1969, then moved to Chicago, where he spent a year in the Inland Steel management training program. He returned to Champaign in 1971 to continue his studies in communications, mostly so he could serve as a graduate assistant on the staff of first-year Illini football coach Bob Blackman. Bess soon discovered that he loved advertising more than football.
Armed with that knowledge and a master's degree, Bess headed back to Chicago in 1972, landing as an account executive at Foote, Cone & Belding (now Draftfcb), where he worked on packaged-goods giants Kimberly-Clark and SC Johnson.
In 1975, Bess moved to Needham Harper Steers (now DDB), which was creating seminal advertising for McDonald's with its "You deserve a break today" campaign.
"I got promoted from account supervisor to account director in less than a year, and so I was running all of the McDonald's account at 29," Bess said. "That was my big leap forward. It was a very exciting and stimulating experience."
While at Needham, Bess also developed the agency's relationship with Anheuser-Busch, leading the team that helped turn Bud Light into the top-selling beer brand in the world. His elevated role earned him a seat on the agency's creative and strategic review boards, and a crucial view of the big picture.
"That gave me exposure to all of the accounts that we did business with, and that gave me exposure to the management team inner circle," Bess said. "It gave me opportunities to see a lot more of how decisions were made, strategically and creatively, across all the accounts in the agency."
Bess left the agency in 1987 to start his own firm, Bayer Bess Vanderwarker, which was born out of the forced divestiture of Backer & Spielvogel's Chicago office. Among the key accounts acquired was Gatorade, which was still very much a niche sports drink at the time. Bayer Bess helped propel Gatorade into a mass-appeal, multibillion-dollar brand with the iconic "Be Like Mike" campaign featuring Chicago Bulls superstar Michael Jordan.
In 1996, Bayer Bess was acquired by True North Communications, then the parent company of Foote, Cone & Belding. Back where he started, the former account executive trainee was named to head FCB Chicago, and two years later was promoted to president of FCB Worldwide.
In 1999, the Chicago advertising loyalist left FCB, packed up and moved to New York to head Young & Rubicam's diversified communications group, which included all of the agency's nonadvertising companies. It was an enjoyable and mostly successful five-year run, said Bess, but a change in top management and direction led to an acrimonious departure.
His firsthand experience in the Big Apple gave him a renewed appreciation for the Second City.
"I love New York — it's the center of the media universe — but the top 10 New York agencies are no better than the top 10 Chicago agencies," Bess said. "My friends in New York will sometimes accuse me of being defensive. It's not defensive if the facts support you and what you are saying is true."
Bess jumped at the opportunity to return to his roots in 2004, taking the helm of the foundering Chicago office of Euro RSCG, which is owned by Paris-based holding company Havas. With traditional advertising down to less than 20 percent of revenue at the former Tatham-Laird & Kudner, Bess meshed the agency's strength, its direct marketing business, with new digital and creative initiatives, fostering a unified approach across all advertising platforms and a successful turnaround.
Soon after Bess took the reins, Citibank conducted a review of its credit card direct marketing, which was scattered across 30 agencies, including Euro. During the process, Bess and the client made an unusual move for the time: They deployed top creative talent to design a direct-marketing campaign, a part of the business normally handled lower down the ranks. Euro ultimately won the lion's share of the business.
"Ron definitely played a major role in our decision to stay with Euro and add more business to their agency," said Bob O'Leary, head of global marketing for Citigroup. "He's a very strong leader; he's a very smart, strategic thinker."
The unified approach has helped Euro Chicago grow revenue in four of the past five years in what has been a challenging stretch for the industry at large. The agency has added more than 50 people this year, bringing the total to 336 employees at its spacious Grand Avenue offices, said Bess.
"I think what Ron has done more than anything is built a much more highly integrated agency team and offering there," said David Beals, president and CEO of R3:JLB, a Chicago-based advertising industry consultant. "They seem to be growing, slowly but surely picking off accounts and regaining some stature."
Among the prominent recent hires are new creative director Jason Peterson, a New York import who started in December, and Norm Yustin, an accomplished marketing veteran who became president of Euro Chicago in February. Bess attributes a string of recent wins to the infusion of new talent, but the coach himself is getting a lot of credit for the agency's remarkable resurgence.
"Ron has done a great job surrounding himself with contemporary thinkers," said Peterson, 40, who was creative director and founding partner at Berlin Cameron United, an agency owned by global advertising group WPP.
Peterson, a hoodie-wearing hipster and self-professed former skater punk who rides a fixed-gear bike to work, represents a stark contrast and a conduit to the cutting edge for Bess. Spanning the generation gap proved no problem for either.
"There's something that's timeless about him," Peterson said. "On the surface, he's kind of an old dude, but really, he's not."
Peterson likened his new mentor to the Oracle from the 1999 science-fiction film "The Matrix," a cookie-baking, grandmotherly character who can seemingly predict the future, a reference to Bess' vision and his calming presence.
"We're in this digital media, fragmented age, and he is unfazed, because he is a true advertising professional," Peterson said.
Although Bess has a long history of building success, his greatest challenge might be a pro bono effort he has been spearheading to improve the reputation and esprit de corps of the Chicago advertising community, which has been painted broadly in the new millennium as a stodgy market in decline.
'Selfless effort' pays
In 2007, Bess enlisted top brass to meet regularly through the long-dormant local chapter of the 4A's, the national trade association representing advertising agencies. Playing out like a scene from "The Godfather," the heads of Chicago's biggest agencies came together, some meeting for the first time, declaring a temporary truce to discuss ways to boost their own brand.
"There's a lot of guns checked at that door," said Jack Rooney, 53, president of Ogilvy & Mather in Chicago.
Rooney, a longtime Chicago executive who returned to the market in 2007 after a stint as CEO of Campbell Mithun in Minneapolis, said the group has been meeting regularly ever since, with the likes of Rich Stoddart, president of Leo Burnett, and Tonise Paul, president of Energy BBDO, sharing ideas and working together to attract business to Chicago.
"The Chicago agency community is rekindling itself as a community," Rooney said. "It took the selfless effort of Ron Bess to make that happen. He kick-started it and continues to lead it."
The forum enabled Bess to take a head count recently among the top eight agencies, which he said showed a net gain of 300 to 400 hires for the year, despite Draftfcb trimming 100 employees this summer in the wake of losing SC Johnson. The group's camaraderie extended to congratulations for Ogilvy & Mather and Energy BBDO, which picked up the account and kept the business in Chicago.
Bess, promoted in 2007 to the dual role as president of Euro RSCG North America, travels to the New York office at least three times a month, interspersed with rotating visits to other Euro RSCG markets. The daunting schedule is no deterrent to Bess, who said he remains "fully engaged" with his work and has no plans to retire.
"This is a great time in my life," Bess said. "I'm enjoying every part of it."
Bess, an anomaly in a business where youth is a "Darwinian" reality, according to Rooney, winces at the appellation "old school." Rooney, for one, doesn't see it as an epithet.
"Ron is absolutely old school, in all ways good," Rooney said. "You do it the old-fashioned way: You work hard, take good care of your clients, do good work, and it's a good business proposition."
Although Bess has great respect for the storied history of Chicago advertising, a good portion of which he can recount from firsthand experience, he prefers to look forward to what is clearly the fourth quarter of his career.
"I've been the youngest guy in the room and the oldest guy in the room," Bess said. "It's not that different. What's important is having ideas that make things better."
CEO, Euro RSCG Chicago
Family life: Lives in the Gold Coast with his second wife, Colleen, with whom he is raising his 9-year-old grandson, Trey. Bess also has a son, Dan; a daughter, Laura; and a stepdaughter, Catherine.
Getaway: Owns a house in Door County, Wis., where he regularly escapes with his family for sunsets, s'mores and a few rounds of golf.
Arts patron: Supports the Steppenwolf and Goodman theaters in Chicago, the Roundabout Theatre Company and New York City Ballet in New York and the American Folklore Theatre in Door County.
Person he admires: Retired NBA basketball coach Phil Jackson. "I think he's the best coach in the history of the NBA, and he's got the most titles to prove it," Bess said. "He also has a philosophy which I think is very effective." From Jackson's autobiography, "Sacred Hoops: Spiritual Lessons of a Hardwood Warrior," he likes an Ursula K. Le Guin quote: "It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end."
Another person he admires: Actor and former rapper Mark "Marky Mark" Wahlberg. "He's gone from an actor to a leading man to a producer," Bess said. "From a doer to a leader to a creator."
How Wahlberg's career evolution parallels his own: "You start in this business as an actor and you become a leading man, and if you're really good, you're a star," Bess said. "But beyond that, the roles change, and the opportunity becomes different. If you think of yourself as an actor the whole time, actors get old early. If you think of yourself as a producer or a director, that's got unlimited time on it."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times