New Eastside’s global ad agency — DDB Chicago

Award-winning shop creates ads for the world’s largest brands

In the early 2000s, advertising agency DDB Chicago turned the expression “Whassup?” into an everyday salutation by shamelessly repeating it in a series of award-winning Budweiser television commercials that were conceived in the New Eastside’s Aon Center.

Since then, the company has continued to influence popular culture from the same location; but a lot of its work doesn’t look anything like a commercial or even play on a TV. Here’s how the mid-sized agency keeps its wits.

“Creativity is at the heart of everything,” says Chief Executive Officer Paul Gunning. “I love the creative process.”


DDB’s “GOL!” campaign for McDonald’s

Gunning, who has been at the helm of DDB Chicago since 2013, is frequently hailed as a “successful new breed” of CEO. The description generally implies two things: First, he has worked for a company with an interesting name (in this case, “Tribal Worldwide,” the digital unit of DDB); Second, the company with the interesting name is still in business (in Tribal’s case, excessively so: it consistently ranks among the world’s best digital agencies).

To create effective advertising, DDB Chicago sizes up the tastes of millions of people who might be tempted to buy a product the agency wants to sell. In order to accomplish this, the agency must obtain solid data from the slippery social mediascape of modern America. The task comes naturally to the successful new breed of CEOs.

“We look at the average U.S. shopper all the time,” Gunning says. “They’re willing to forego a lot of things in their life to have a sizable mobile phone contract.”

Gunning understands that people are not only willing to make a “serious trade-off” to enjoy the luxury of their smart phones — “the average bill is $110 per month,” he continues — but they also might fund their phones by paying for and watching less TV.

“It’s changed everything,” he says. “Where they spend their time, how they find things. Advertising has to change with it.”


DDB’s “GOL!” campaign for McDonald’s

Fortunately, DDB Chicago works with McDonald’s, a restaurant that offers an affordable product and, as it turns out, shares his commitment to deal with customers on their own digital terms.

One of the early programs to emerge from their relationship was a French fry box that could transform a smart phone into an interactive digital soccer game when diners scanned a QVC code on the package’s design. It was a campaign called “Gol” that ran in conjunction with the World Cup and won praise for technical innovation and creativity.

But that was just the beginning.

DDB Chicago dialed it up even more for last year’s Super Bowl. Their idea was for McDonald’s to award a prize corresponding to every commercial that aired during the game on a contest run through the restaurant’s Twitter account. They called it “McDonald’s ‘Lovin’ the Super Bowl.’”

By channeling the hype of the traditionally famous ads through the newfangled portal of social media, they could potentially connect their client’s brand with an audience that exceeded the record-breaking numbers normally associated with the event. It would require the expertise of several vendors in addition to DDB.

“It was a totally new and unheard of way to go to the Super Bowl,” says Gunning.

It also made quite an exciting game for the team behind the scenes, which, according to Gunning, “involved well over a hundred people from four or five different agencies.”


Behind the scenes during McDonald’s Super Bowl Giveaway

Their greatest challenge was to create and deliver Tweets from a downtown Chicago office while the action was happening live. Since the NFL often does not identify all of the commercials scheduled to run during a Super Bowl, some of them were constructed in real time.

“We had everything from producers to creative,” Gunning says. “We had account folks who were checking off on legal.”

As the commercials ran, a chief production officer would contact an associate in New York and California to ensure that the ad was, indeed, playing all over the country. Then the team back in Chicago would Tweet a message offering the chance to win a prize for anyone who re-tweeted it.

There was also a blizzard, which complicated the commute for some of the people who needed to join the crew on the back end, but Gunning says that only “added to the level of excitement.”

“The trickiest parts were to make it exciting,” he remembers. “For the Mexican Avocado Growers Association, we gave away one avocado. But you got a trip to Mexico to pick it up.”

In March, DDB Chicago won the 2016 Shorty Award for Mid-Size Agency of the Year, an honor that Fast Company magazine describes as “The Oscars of Social Media.” The company earned that recognition partly due to the success of “McDonald’s ‘Lovin’ the Super Bowl’” campaign, which won three Shorties.

— Daniel Patton, Staff Writer

The making of Keys To Time

The story behind one of the Pedway’s oldest businesses

In 1976, newlyweds Art and Kathy Alekno opened a key-copying service in the Pedway under the lobby of 233 N. Michigan Ave. Having turned a profit doing similar business in flea markets near Marquette Park since their high school days in the late 1960s, they felt ready to try the newfangled, indoor retail thoroughfare. This March, just a few steps away from the place where it all began, they’ll celebrate the 40th anniversary of Keys To Time.

“I was working at an industrial plant and I wanted to go out on my own,” says Art. “I wanted to do something for myself.” Art had learned the key-copying trade while working at a local Sears store in high school. He had also noticed that Sears was successful despite its flaws, namely a lack of personalized customer service and an overall disregard for precision.

“When I came down here, it was like, ‘yeah, this might work,’ Kathy remembers. “If it doesn’t, we crash it.” Kathy had earned a BS in Chemistry from UIC and was working in Walgreen’s quality control department when they launched the business. She helped run the store part-time for a few years before leaving Corporate America to join Art in the Pedway for good.

When they set up shop, the concourse was far from becoming the labyrinthine retail marketplace that it is today. “There were only three buildings,” Art recalls. “This building, One Illinois Center and what is now the west tower of the Hyatt.”

A hundred yards east of their kiosk, the Pedway abruptly came to an end where a few doors opened to a field that extended to Lake Shore Drive. Besides the tracks of the Illinois Central railroad, there was little else. Over the next four decades, the landscape would transform into a three-par golf course and, eventually, The Aqua, Lake Shore East Park and an urban nook full of upscale high-rise condominiums and shops. The Pedway would grow to nearly connect them all.

Among their shop’s neighbors were handful of food operations and a few regular stores, but most have since moved on. “The bank and the barbershop are the only two that are the same as when we first opened,” Art says.

The Aleknos had learned from their flea market days that foot traffic generated business. “It’s an impulse type thing,” Kathy explains. “People walk by and they see us and think, ‘oh, I need a key.’” Since the Illinois Center was less than two years old, they knew that many Chicagoans had yet to discover the Pedway. Fortunately, the location of their shop is highly visible as an open kiosk along a thoroughfare.

“This building at the time wanted kiosks in the middle,” Kathy says.

Before long, Art’s knack for the process paid off. “We ask the customers if they ever have problems with their keys,” he explains. “Then we make modifications to help the new key insert or turn more easily.”

Business picked up so quickly that they soon added watch repair and maintenance to the list of services. Besides customizing the sizes of individual bands, Keys To Time now stocks 70 different types of batteries for replacing garage door openers, car remotes — “anything that uses batteries like that” says Art — as well as watches.

In 1980, Kathy decided to investigate a nearby residential building under construction at 233 E. Wacker Dr. “I thought I’ll go over and see what they’re charging,” she remembers. She liked the units, calculated the amount they’d save from not commuting to work every day and convinced her husband to move into a rental in what is now Columbus Plaza. The geography and the neighborhood were so agreeable that, six years later, they bought a place of their own a few blocks east on Upper Wacker Drive.

As the business became something like a second home for the Aleknos, the customers grew into something like a family. “We’ve been here so long, we have people who have retired and moved out of the city but will make a special trip down with watches,” says Kathy. People from as far away as Florida stop by when they visit Chicago, and flight attendants frequently drop off watches and keys during layovers in the area’s hotels.

For some, the success of a business that started in a flea market stall with a machine powered by two 12-volt marine batteries may seem remarkable. But according to Art, it’s nothing more than hard work and quality service.

“The concept is very simple: you are tracing the original key,” he says. “But we can make new keys that work better, which very few places do.”

Keys to Time · (312) 861-1294 · 233 N. Michigan Ave. · Chicago, IL 60601

— Daniel Patton, Staff Writer

Inside bKL Architecture and Design’s 3D world of ideas

By Daniel Patton | Managing Editor

bKL Architecture and Design is home to a miniature neighborhood of some of the New Eastside’s most noteworthy buildings, all contained within their offices at 225. N. Columbus Dr.

The company that conceived the GEMS Lower School and Coast at Lakeshore East presents its ideas to clients in the form of computer simulations as well as miniature physical replicas, a unique process in a time when most firms are ditching the 3D scale models and relying exclusively on digital renderings.

“A personal belief of mine,” says bKL Principal Tom Kerwin, “is that the only way to fully understand a design is by building a 3-dimensional scale model of the project.”

This dedication to old-school methodology has served Kerwin well. Since founding the firm with the support of James Loewenberg in 2010, he has expanded bKL’s size to 60 employees and spread its vision across the globe.

Besides Chicago, the company’s designs are enhancing skylines in Toronto, Texas, Miami and Asia.


bKL’s scale model of 200 N. Michigan Avenue. Photo and imagery credit: bKL Architecture LLC

For residents of the New Eastside, bKL’s most visible work-in-progress is the 42-story mixed-use tower under construction at 200 N. Michigan Ave. Named “MILA,” it is a portmanteau of the streets that form the intersection where it stands, Michigan and Lake.

When completed, MILA will have two stories of retail space and a multiple-story light sculpture that hides the parking garage. Above that, 406 residential units on the remaining 36 stories will rise 400 feet into the air, ultimately reaching a rooftop that contains a terrace and a swimming pool.

According to Kerwin, MILA’s appearance should brighten the “heavy masonry and dark steel buildings” that create a “somewhat foreboding” stretch of Michigan Avenue between Randolph St. and the Chicago River.

But all of the details on the outside, appealing as they may be, were designed to accommodate the things happening on the inside.

The longest side of the building faces Lake Street because that offers more unobstructed southern and western views from the units above. The parking garage had to be built above ground because the foundations of nearby buildings prohibited underground excavation. This resulted in a dramatically appealing retail space.

“Cars enter the parking area from Lower Michigan,” says Kerwin, “but they have to park above the retail floors.”

The solution, an oval ramp that winds around the first and seond stories, required a feat of architectural “gymnastics” that Kerwin believes is easier to demonstrate than to explain.

“If I show you a model,” he says, “you can really understand it.”

New home care program matches seniors with seniors

By Daniel Patton | Managing Editor

In September, Sylvie Hutchings launched a Chicago-based franchise of Seniors Helping Seniors (SHS), a home care service that hires people who are at least 50 years-old to help make life easier for seniors who prefer a like-minded caregiver.

Hutchings screens, trains and equips her staff to visit the homes of clients and pitch in with tasks and chores — like many domestic nonmedical service providers — but the similarities between her franchise and the rest of the industry pretty much ends there.

SHS carefully matches the backgrounds, hobbies and interests of its employees with those of its clients. Ideally, this leads to a mutually beneficial relationship between “provider” and “receiver.”

Sylvie Hutchings

Sylvie Hutchings

“We employ people who instinctively volunteer their time to help in the community,” she explains. “All the people who work for me are saints.”

Although a typical day frequently involves light cooking and cleaning, SHS is committed to helping do “anything that needs to be done.”

Hutchings completed several training sessions before opening the franchise, but it was a natural instinct that inspired her to make it happen in the first place. Raised in a small town on the Atlantic coast of France, she thanks her parents, who were “always giving and generous,” for showing her the power of selflessness.

While caring for her father during his final years, she was inspired “to help older people.” The credentials of SHS cofounder, Kiran Yocom, caught her attention. “She actually worked with Mother Theresa for 14 years,” Hutchings explains.

Hutchings also grew to understand the resistance that people have to asking for help after having undergone major surgery herself. “It’s very challenging  [for people] to call us. We all want our independence but sometimes you don’t have the choice. The elderly want to live their own lives,” she explains. “We don’t want to take that independence away. We want to help.”

Sylvie Hutchings Seniors Helping Seniors franchise, which specializes in house calls, can be reached at (312) 526-3666 or email:

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