A few of us may know Chicago as the site of the first Ferris wheel, created for the World’s Fair in 1893 with a brief to outdo the Eiffel Tower, which had been built for the Exposition Universelle in Paris four years earlier.
But, as an Englishman in New York, a co-founder of the Iris network and overseeing our latest office opening in Chicago, I’ve come to know the Windy City as more than this.
The first thing Chicago does is remind you that most people in America don’t live in New York or Los Angeles; it is Chicago’s size, position and diversity that make it America’s number-one test market for brands. Unsurprising, then, that it’s also home to more than 60 of the Fortune 1,000 companies, and more than 30 of the Fortune 500. McDonald’s, Boeing and Kraft Foods are here, but what makes Chicago such an interesting landscape for business is the blend of these large "establishment" brands with innovators and challengers such as Groupon and Orbitz. In many ways, the agency marketplace mirrors this. Employing nearly 24,000 people in Chicago, all the big players are here (Leo Burnett lording it as the biggest and oldest). But there is also a vibrant scene of strong independents that have taken the wind (sorry) out of more than a couple of the agency stalwarts’ sails.
Some of the best people are taking senior planning, creative and management roles in the city
This is in line with Chicago’s self-appointed position as the challenger brand to the US epicentre of advertising: New York and the Madison Avenue set. As with all challenger brands, the past few years have been a period of rapid change, growth and innovation. Whereas, a few years back, Chicago’s agencies had to battle to attract top talent from the East- and West-Coast hubs, now some of the best people are taking senior planning, creative and management positions in the city. It could be argued that
Chicago has the same level of smarts and creative quality as the coastal markets of LA and New York, but offering better value to its clients and a better quality of life for its workers. Make of that what you will.
Chicago’s location in mainstream America is one of its strong points and, as a result, the industry has been driven historically by retail. Home to retail giants such as Sears and Walgreens, it’s a centre of excellence for the sector. Given the role of retail in creating true brand participation, our lifeblood at Iris, we were drawn to the market – we are an agency that was essentially born from retail back in 1999.
And, finally, it’s got to be said that businesses here are more open to collaboration than those in more established hubs. Though this may seem like a bit of a cliché, it is true that, as large networks continue to converge, the need for smart collaborators and sharers who work together in an effortless, ego-free way is at more of a premium than ever.
Stewart Shanley is the global chief executive at Iris