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During the early 2000s, the advertising community thought it was hilarious to refer to Energy BBDO, the Chicago branch of Omnicon-owned BBDO Worldwide, as Wrigley’s in-house agency. It’s not that a massive account like Wrigley was anything to sneeze at. It’s that, had the agency been called to defend itself on a playground, it wouldn’t have had much else to brag about.

And what could the “in-house” thing have been if not a schoolyard taunt? So in 2004, the agency got its New York on. From Merkley Newman Harty, Marty Orzio took the helm as Energy BBDO’s chief creative officer. And until his 2008 departure, he accumulated new business wins like Jim Beam, Dial, U.S. News & World Report and The Chicago White Sox.

“It’s not easy to shift perceptions,” says Tonise Paul, chief executive officer. “But we didn’t put a lot of energy into that. We just kept our eye on the ball. And suddenly, we’re winning awards across categories.” The shop’s pre-Orzio awards history: A Mobius here, a Clio there. During his tenure: Recognition from Cannes, The One Show and Communication Arts, among others. If the joke lingered in some areas, the work made it hard to justify.

When Orzio first took his post, Dan Fietsam—a Chicago creative whose prior stints included Leo Burnett (copywriter: Coca-Cola, Dewars) and Y&R (creative director: Sears, Jim Beam)—was blocks away at DDB, getting famous on Bud Light. His work showed up on USA Today's Super Bowl ad meter two years running, taking first place in 2006; it also brought in Cannes Lions, One Show Pencils and a 2008 Emmy.

By the time Energy BBDO called several years later, Fietsam was co-executive creative director at Publicis in the West, Seattle, working on T-Mobile and Washington Lottery. “But I looked at the agency and said, ‘OK, here’s a place with momentum,’” he says. “Marty had generated tremendous momentum in both creative and business terms. My role would be to take that to the next level.”

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Paul supplied the specs: Whoever filled the position would be responsible for accomplishing the agency’s mission to be a leading-edge creative organization. They’d need to have integrity, an ability to inspire people in all roles, a track record of business success and a pile of creative awards. And more. Lots more.

“Perhaps Zeus is available,” she wrote. The shot of humor slayed any lingering reservations Fietsam might have had about the gargantuan job.

“With Tonise, the chemistry was right,” says Fietsam. “It wasn’t just ‘I like Tonise and I think she likes me, too.’ When we talk, there’s a synergy. There are complementary points of view, supplementary ways of thinking.”

As Fietsam saw it, the agency structure also pointed to success. “We’re bigger than a creative boutique,” he says.“But we’re not a big, lumbering, clumsy agency either. We’re in a sweet spot in terms of scale, with enough people, clients and billings to be that leading-edge creative agency.”

As the new chief creative officer, he set up his office in July 2008. For the agency, the show of creative might was something like hanging a huge sign over the proverbial industry playground: "In-house what, you said? In-house who?"

Probably less apparent to those on the outside: Fietsam’s business chops. “I don’t like random acts of marketing,” he says. “I like things to be more purposeful. And I like to feel the business problem in my bones.” By January 2010, Fietsam was overseeing four new business pitches at once—a “Pitchapalooza,” staffers called it internally.

Like a lot of the funniest writers you’ll meet, Fietsam is more serious in disposition than his work would have you believe. He’s best known for his observational humor, but he’s more the contemplator than comic. In conversation, he’ll bring up the fact that you can’t step into the same river twice (it’s not the same river; you’re not the same person). And he’s slightly-to-really obsessed with the simultaneously surreal, dystopian, funny and scary film Brazil.

“Dan brought a swagger to the agency,” says Frank Dattalo, group creative director. Dattalo’s work on Orbit—from his 2001 British spokesperson campaign (“What the French toast!?”) to a 2009 gum-meets-haute-couture campaign shot by illustrious fashion photographer Nadav Kander—helped make that brand the category leader. “And he added the kind of creative credibility that's attracted incredible new talent.”

Like Noel Haan, for instance, a recently appointed group creative director. And Kevin Lynch—co-founder of Hadrian’s Wall, which he sold to MDC Partners’ zig in 2006. Now, Lynch is creative lead of Proximity, Energy BBDO’s digital arm. And based on the first account he touched, the Art Institute of Chicago, Energy BBDOers ought to take cover, lest the flying awards leave them concussed this season.

If you stay open to possibilities as long as you can, the most interesting answers will come up." —Dan Fietsam

For “500 Ways of Looking at Modern,” Energy BBDO scattered 500 red cubes across the city’s streets, each a 3-D interpretation of AIC’s logo. The cubes directed their claimers to take them home and visit 500-ways.com, where they registered and received art assignments: Redo a Cy Twombly painting, for instance, or write a love letter to someone on one side of the cube.

When they finished, participants uploaded projects for discussion, building an organic, online community around art and the AIC. Aside from things sexual or scatological, there aren’t many activities more personal than making art. Which is how this campaign got people so emotionally invested in a cultural institution they often otherwise take for granted. On top of that, “500 Ways” cost zero in media spend.

“It’s a good indicator of the type of thinking we’re building for the future,” says Fietsam, who, with Lynch, wants to make integration, an agency-wide reflex, a matter of instinct.

Not that TV and print is on the wane. For the Illinois Lottery, which awarded the agency its $105 million contract in 2009, Energy BBDO research discovered a weird brain glitch people have about the $12 million lottery: In their minds, $50 million is real money, but 12? Twelve won’t get you very far.

Which is, of course, crazy talk.

To clarify, Energy BBDO showed Illinoisans what $12 million really looks like. “Office Pool” takes place in the kind of sunless work environment on which lottery dreams are made. Watching the winning numbers on TV, employees gradually realize that they hold the winning ticket. In slow motion, $12 million in coins and bills fall from overhead—a rainstorm of options and opportunity.

Over in the spirits corner of the universe, Energy BBDO’s “Rent-a-Puppy” spot for Jim Beam dramatizes a time-tested strategy for picking up chicks: Walk around with a puppy or two to get every smokin’ hot lady within a one-mile radius to stop, coo and eventually give the dog owner (or renter, in this case) her digits. “Guys never change,” says the voiceover. “Neither do we."

Timing. It’s a mystery. Just as the “guys never change” campaign started rolling out, Beam Global Spirits & Wine “parted ways” with Energy BBDO in October 2009, reassigning creative to StrawberryFrog, New York. But what did TBS care about all that? It didn’t. The network named Rent-A-Puppy the funniest commercial of 2009. And it’s not for nothing either.

Dan brought a swagger to the agency." —Frank Dattalo

But the spot has a serious foundation. (Like someone we know.) Back in the research phase, Energy BBDO found that guys in their late 20s and early 30s live with a lot of flux. Many are post-college—but they’re not quite ready for the house and kids in the ’burbs. A bad economy and job market confuses matters still more. Given all that uncertainty, young Beam loyalists like the brand because it hasn’t changed for generations, and won’t any time soon.

Energy BBDO’s market research often digs up golden insights like this one. And in the past year or so, the research seems to have become, sort of, the best part. Charged with inspiring creatives, the planning department regularly brings in speakers with big brains, including some who have nothing to do with specific brand problems.

Tal Ben-Shahar, Harvard University’s happiness expert, spoke on that ever-elusive state of mind every marketer wants to bottle. And three tween girls at the vanguard of the “kid-core,” punk-pop music scene—the members of Care Bears on Fire (“Barbie, eat a sandwich before you die”)—once performed at the agency.

But Elke Anderle, SVP, planning director, gets first place for “Five Days of 5,” a program designed to spark ideas for creating mystery and mystique around Wrigley’s 5 Gum. She brought in Damon Lindelof, co-creator and executive producer of Lost, inviting clients and agency staffers to hear him discuss his work.

Afterward: Drinks at The Peninsula. “We debated the existence of God, Star Wars versus Star Trek and whether or not robots would someday take over the earth,” says Anderle. But creatives get way more than the chance to geek out beyond recognition during programs like “Five Days.”

They get buy-in. They get clients on the same page. When creatives later present a nontraditional campaign, clients are far more likely to get it, as in: “That reminds me of what my good buddy Damon told me about non-linear storytelling and letting social media be the driver.”

Fietsam wants more of these initiatives. They keep his teams open to possibilities. Which is one of his secrets, actually. Somewhere along the line—when Fietsam realized that the most successful creative agencies share this tendency—he trained himself to be OK with leaving problems unresolved longer than is always comfortable.

“If you stay open to possibilities as long as you can, the most interesting answers will come up,” he says. “From there, it’s about confidence. And given the brains, people and energy at this agency, I’m confident that we’ll always get to the better resolution, the most interesting answer.” ca

Tiffany Meyers is a Chicago-based freelance writer. Her articles about business and visual culture have appeared in such magazines as Surface, the Chicago Tribune, HOW, Metropolis, American PHOTO, PINK, Entrepreneur and Advertising Age, among others.

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