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The McCann Time Capsule: Sears and McCann Chicago

The McCann Time Capsule: Sears and McCann Chicago

The recent announcement by Sears that it had filed for bankruptcy was viewed as a watershed moment in retail, given the prominent role that the 132-year-old company has played in American retail history. As one of Chicago’s leading companies, its reorganization over 35 years ago of a very different type --namely, of its ad account assignments—also led to a turning point for McCann when the agency made the difficult decision in 1982 to close its almost 60-year-old Chicago office after losing its portions of the Sears account.

The Chicago office, which opened in 1924, was one of the key agencies in the extensive McCann U.S. network that included New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Detroit, Cleveland, Seattle, Denver and Atlanta.Over time it would handle major brands such as Swift & Co. Peter Pan Peanut Butter, and Rival Dog Food, but its fortune was also an up and down one.  In the early 1950s, it was dominated by Standard Oil of Indiana, which accounted for 80% of its income and then moved its business to another agency. The mid and late 1960s were also rocky times for the office, which then began to bounce back in the early 1970s, adding accounts such as Budget Rent-A-Car, KFC’s H. Salt Fish & Chips, Abbott Laboratories and G.D. Searle.McCann Chicago also expanded in those years to become a multidiscipline operation that included sales promotion, PR, research, media, a marketing consultancy, and a new products development group that introduced such items as One-A-Day Plus Iron Vitamins, Swift’s Sugarplum Ham and Tappan Microwave Ovens.

In 1970, McCann Chicago also made an important acquisition in that market, absorbing the Reach McClinton agency that was handling Sears. By the mid-1970s, McCann Chicago’s Sears business included two major components. There was The Men’s Store, the men’s apparel line that grew from a $750,000 promotional assignment in 1970 to an $8 million ad account by 1976. And there was the Sears Chicago Group, which included about 50 stores in the Midwest with the agency handling advertising for all products in those stores. But after Sears consolidated its ad business at Needham, Harper & Steers (now DDB Needham), the office was no longer considered viable.

But while Chicago may have vanished from the McCann U.S. ad agency map, its legacy in nurturing executive talent has been significant and enduring.  Neal Gilliatt, who rose to be Vice Chairman of Interpublic, first began working for McCann in Chicago. So did Francis Van Bortel, who had been the chief strategist behind the successful repositioning of Miller High Life and the launch of Miller Lite and then rose to become Executive VP in charge of strategic planning for McCann Worldwide. And as discussed in a previous McCann Time Capsule (3/22/18), Peter G. Peterson, the General Manager of McCann Chicago between 1954 and 1958, became one of the business world’s major figures. After leaving McCann in 1958, he went on to become CEO of Bell & Howell and then U.S. Secretary of Commerce (1972-1973), head of Lehman Brothers in the 1970s-early 1980s, and co-founder in 1985 of the Blackstone Group.

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