During a conversation about his favorite books, Jim Schmidt, cofounding partner of Chicago’s Downtown Partners, mentions George Saunders’s The Braindead Megaphone. In the title essay of that collection—an excoriation of America's screaming media culture—Saunders describes a party. Guests are mingling and connecting. Then a guy with a megaphone turns up.
“Megaphone Guy” is shrill and neither smart nor interesting, but, with the megaphone, he dominates. Volume, not quality, validates his ideas. He spouts off something about spring days. Then cheese cubes. Without room to reflect, the guests start talking about spring and cheese. Eventually, they start repeating his ideas, then agreeing with them.
It makes sense that the concept would appeal. “An agency is a fragile ecosystem,” says Schmidt, who was partner at independent agency McConnaughy Stein Schmidt Brown through the 1990s, working on accounts like Walgreen Co., until Havas-owned Euro RSCG Tatham Partners bought the agency in 2000. “If you get the wrong person, it can wreak havoc on a small agency. There are people who want to give seminars and pontificate. That’s OK in certain cultures, but it’s poison for us.”
At Downtown Partners, you check your megaphone—not to mention your industryspeak—at the door. Rather than a swear jar, Schmidt says, maybe he should start a jargon jar. And you won’t find a foosball table or quotes about creativity emblazoned across the walls here.
Although the agency does advertising and lots of it, and although Schmidt and cofounding partner Joe Stuart light up when they talk about the work, Downtown Partners, operating slightly under the radar, is something of an “un-agency.”
Creative director Dan Consiglio sums it up: “I’ve always really liked the industry. I just don’t always like how much the industry likes itself. That’s what's cool about this place. It’s like, let’s do the work and not get too swept up in all that.”
For a client roster that mixes smaller and/or Chicago-centric clients with major accounts (Northern Trust, Chicago 2016, Walgreens and project work for Kohl’s), the work tends to rest in writing with wry, restrained humor and art direction whose every detail is ministered to.
In a classy 2008 film for the Chicago Tourism and Convention Bureau, which ran online and at the bureau’s events, Chicagoans and homegrown celebrities (Billy Corgan, Mike Ditka) recite Daniel Burnham’s “make no little plans” quote. (“They have no magic to stir men’s blood.”) It makes you want to visit Chicago, of course, but it’s also quiet and at one point even wistful—hardly typical fare from the megaphone-wielding tourism industry.
For Chicago 2016—the city group that pitched the Olympics—the Downtown Partners campaign greeted us Olympic Committee members arriving at O’Hare International in 2007. In an airport that’s wallpapered with advertising, Downtown Partners made use of previously uncharted spaces, like windows and the ceiling. In one terminal, a life-size 2-D diver was suspended from the ceiling, his arms pointed toward the shimmering pool—a 50-by-70 foot floor appliqué—into which he’s about to dive.
Schmidt is “just the right amount of opposite,” says Consiglio, to the more introverted Stuart, who in turn complements Katie Baxter, a gregarious account executive who joined in 2006 and, after the agency’s president Ray Gillette retired in 2007, became a partner in 2009.
Downtown Partners was born of a perfect storm of ultimately benevolent trials. As Euro RSCG Tatham Partners’s creative chief, Schmidt worked on Walgreens with fellow MSSB ex-pat Stuart, among other accounts, until he left in January 2004. Stuart, lead creative on Walgreens, left the next day. At that time, Chicago’s Euro RSCG—following a restructuring attempt in 2002—was imploding as a string of high-profile talent and clients, including Walgreens, abdicated.
Offers came in, but Schmidt, a two-time Adweek Creative All-Star, and Stuart, with his own pile of industry accolades, started hashing out ideas to make something for themselves. “At the time, there wasn’t an agency in Chicago with the values we wanted to build, where we didn’t overthink things and could focus on the work,” says Stuart.
Holding conversations with a few agency groups, they settled into discussions with Omnicom-owned DDB Chicago. Walgreens, meanwhile, was conducting a review that included DDB and Ogilvy & Mather. But to the press, the retailer expressed concern that their account might not get adequate attention at a large agency.
DDB Chicago and its president, Ray Gillette, made a strategic move, forming Downtown Partners Chicago in April 2004, with Schmidt and Stuart as creative partners. In a barrel-chested city that’s typically inhospitable to upstart ad agencies, the autonomous arm of DDB (and sibling to award-winning Downtown Partners Toronto, which closed in 2008) runs off big agency network support and boutique-like flexibility.
Walgreens, which would get senior-level attention from people who knew the brand, named Downtown Partners its agency of record in June. Their first work marked the evolution of a Walgreens campaign Schmidt and Stuart created while at Euro, set in the halcyon town of Perfect, USA, “where everyone gives 110 percent, even when tipping.” Point being: Perfect USA doesn’t exist, but Walgreens has what you need for the real world.
In Downtown Partners’s iteration of that imperfect-world idea, one spot of several touts Walgreens’s automatic prescription refills. It opens on a guy in his office, who pulls the last tissue from his Kleenex box. After a beat, a new tissue springs forth. Eyebrow raised, he tries again; same result. And so on to its conclusion: “If only everything refilled itself automatically,” says the voiceover. (Maybe the world isn’t perfect, but the comedic timing here is.)
As it happens, the account didn’t hail from Perfect, USA either. In 2008, the Fortune 500 company (now #32 on that list) initiated numerous management changes, which meant that Downtown Partners’s clients were out, and new CMO Kim Feil was in. At the first meeting, Downtown Partners proved itself anew. “We felt a camaraderie with Kim,” says Baxter. “She felt like us. She was optimistic and wanted to roll up her sleeves.”
Downtown Partners’s work repositioned the brand in 2009, when Arc and Digitas came on to handle promotional and interactive, respectively. More than just a place to maintain pharmaceutical wellness, Walgreens generates emotional wellness—the kind that blooms when, say, you pick up a new lipstick. Starting with a versatile tag: “There’s a way,” varied executions complete the idea: There’s a way “to stay well,” for instance. During the holidays, there’s also a way “to find your joy.”
Feil can’t recall working with an agency so ready to lift the veil on the creative process. Initially, for example, the agency presented the tag, “Where there’s a Walgreens, there's a way.”
“I kept saying, it’s just so long and mumbly-fumbly,” says Feil. During a shoot, she and Schmidt worked through it. “Jim was riffing and he said: ‘How about just: “There’s a way,’” which opened it up to all sorts of ‘ways.’ ‘There’s a way to stay well, there’s a way to find your joy.’ I was like, that’s it, baby!”
According to Walgreens research, the retailer’s “health” and “wellness” measures grew steadily since the campaign’s launch to reach an all-time high in 2010. Also in 2010, the retailer showed a six-percent increase in year-to-date sales.
With 25 employees and capitalized billings of $110 million, the small shop maintains mid-sized output. Thanks in part to in-house production capacities, Downtown Partners creates 25 spots annually, on average, for Walgreens alone. A fair share of new business comes via referral and “saying yes to lots of things.”
That’s included a foray into political advertising for Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, product packaging for Green Planet Water, music videos and films. With Mark Mitten, Chicago 2016’s former chief brand officer, Downtown Partners wrote and directed an hour-long documentary about Chicago’s Olympic pitch for World Sport Chicago, which ran on NBC and PBS.
For Peter Himmelman's “Ever So Slightly,” Downtown Partners’s music video dramatizes the kind of lovesickness people die for. On the opposite end of the mood spectrum is their music video for “Falling Apart” by The Sleeptalkers. With a kitschy plot set in a fix-it shop, and a cameo appearance by Cynthia Plaster Caster (Google her), it might have arrived via time machine from MTV, circa 1986. Next up: Work for the Nicholas Tremulis Orchestra.
The agency’s productivity also has a lot to do with the partners’ collusion against inefficiencies of typical big-agency structures, including the tendency to run decisions up layers of approval and call meetings to talk about the next meeting.
“I’ve been in new business situations where you’re enclosed in a conference room for ten hours, talking over the same point,” says Baxter, a large-agency veteran. “And you get a weird look if you have to go to the bathroom. And it smells like food from lunch.”
Put it this way: Downtown Partners sweats the small stuff, but they don’t sweat blood. Rather than asking creatives to suffer slow death in day-long, circular staff meetings, then hit the drawing board with depleted heart, employees pretty much work on the work all day, interacting directly with clients.
“The technology and pace of the world favors people who can go from point A to B quickly,” says Schmidt, and then adds, “The more you do something, the better you get at it. So the more you sit in rooms and talk, the better you get at sitting in rooms and talking.” ca