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25 YEARS OF RHEA & KAISER
AN AGENCY LEADER REFLECTS ON A VERY, VERY, HUMBLE BEGINNING
Editor's note: On May 1, 2003, Rhea & Kaiser Marketing Communications, Naperville, Ill., marked its 25th anniversary. The celebration came just days after Rhea & Kaiser posted the fastest 2002 growth of the Midwest's top 50 agencies.

People often ask how we ever got R&K started, and did we ever think it would become what it has today? I'm not sure we were thinking 25 years ahead when we started, but I do remember some pretty humble beginnings.

Steve Rhea (in the natty pinstripe vest) and Van Kaiser discuss the White Farm Equipment account in 1975.
I grew up on a farm near Waverly, Ill., and Van Kaiser was the son of a foundry worker from Rock Island, Ill. We first worked together in 1973 when we were hired to open the Oak Brook, Ill., office of Cleveland-based Wyse Advertising. We both had strong ag machinery backgrounds, and Wyse needed a team to work on the White Farm Equipment business.

I was the account guy/media planner/buyer, and Van was the creative director/production buyer. With just four employees and one account, Wyse's Oak Brook office was more of an advertising outpost than an aspiring, big-city ad agency.

TRACTOR PARKING ONLY, PLEASE

In fact, we were an anomaly even to the consumer-based people of Cleveland's Wyse Advertising. When Van and I went with our wives to Wyse's Cleveland office for our first Christmas party, the owner's wife cheerfully asked, "Did you drive your tractors all the way from Oak Brook to Cleveland?"

After five years of learning the business, Van and I got up the nerve to offer to buy our Oak Brook office from Marc Wyse, chairman of Wyse Advertising. We flew to Cleveland one gray April day and negotiated a deal in his office, celebrated our victory with a lot of beverages on our return flight, and never ever again set foot in Cleveland.

FROM CHAPTER ONE TO CHAPTER 11

And so it began. On May 1, 1978, Rhea & Kaiser opened for business. We were excited and a little nervous, as Van and I had both mortgaged our homes to complete the deal. We had a five-year lease on office space in Oak Brook, and we had one client with a 90-day cancellation clause.

Just a little more than two years later, White Motor Corporation declared bankruptcy, and our biggest client, worth about 90 percent of our volume, disappeared. I'll always remember Sept. 4, 1980 - my 15th wedding anniversary - as the day White Motor Corporation officially filed Chapter 11.

But we moved on. Roger Zuehl, a former White Farm client then at International Harvester, and Tom Bennett, my former boss at IH, had enough confidence to give us project work.

We grew the IH business from that point forward, doing project work that most people wouldn't exactly say was an ad agency's assignment. We hired engineering firms to conduct tractor tests. We followed combines around fields in Montana and Arkansas. We built convincing reasons for farmers to buy Axial-Flow combines. It was a lot of long hours and a lot of fun. In 1995, we became Case IH's agency of record. But in 1997, we became yet another of its many former agencies.

MAN CANNOT LIVE ON IRON ALONE

As tenuous as it was being a "farm equipment agency," it was also difficult to move beyond that perception. But Van and I realized early on that the future of ag advertising lay in the ag chemical business. So we hit the bricks, selling our talents. We handled early project work on Roundup for Monsanto and Dual for Ciba-Geigy. Every morning, I would arrive at work early to call East Coast ag chemical companies. I'd try to sell 'em an idea and maybe even convince them to move their business from the East Coast to the Midwest, where their products were being sold.

After numerous projects, we won the Rhone-Poulenc business in 1985. One year later, this aggressive French chemical company bought Union Carbide and we repitched, and retained, the business. Since then, Rhone-Poulenc has become Aventis (repitched and retained) and now has been acquired by the current Bayer CropScience (repitched and retained again).

HOW THE DOG CHANGED EVERYTHING

Most agencies can point out a single campaign as a defining moment. For R&K, it was Ol' Buck.

Ol' Buck marked a creative turning point for R&K, even helping to land a key consumer account.
Rhone-Poulenc was looking for a way to differentiate its BuctrilŽ brand herbicide. One of our top creatives, Steve Engle, jokingly suggested to Van that we create a spokesdog. Van loved it, as did the client. Ol' Buck, the weed-eatin' dog, was born. He drove tractors, killed weeds and outsmarted his owner. And along the way, he helped put R&K on the creative map.

Meanwhile, R&K was diversifying beyond agriculture. Targeting B-to-B and consumer accounts, we hired savvy, consumer-based account and creative people. Curt Ippensen and Dick Prow were both downtown Chicago, big-agency guys who taught us about consumer advertising, while we taught them about ag marketing.

Things came full-circle the day that Curt landed a plum consumer account, Evanston Northwestern Healthcare. The client watched our reel, turned to Curt and said, "Well, anybody who can make a weed killer interesting can surely handle health care." So chalk one up for Ol' Buck.

LONG, LONG, LONGTIME EMPLOYEES

Many of the people who helped shape us in those early years are still with us. Patsy Comella, our iron-fisted, but extremely fair, media maven, is the only employee that worked for Van and me before we became Rhea & Kaiser. Jim Haist, a former client at White Farm, joined us in 1983 and is one of our most senior employees. Kim Cooke is a farm girl hired right out of Iowa State in 1984; she now leads our Pfizer and Bayer cotton businesses.

And, of course, there's Tony Filipelli. Tony was another former client, joining us in 1983 after 33 years with International Harvester. Tony died May 14, just two weeks after orchestrating the 25th anniversary celebration of Rhea & Kaiser. He was a great showman and businessman and a real friend.

Today, we have 110 employees, with our headquarters in Naperville, Ill., and an office in Durham, N.C. We've expanded into public relations, dialogue marketing, interactive and event planning.

In the ag business, we're fortunate to serve such great names as AGCO Challenger, Caterpillar, Bayer CropScience, GROWMARK, Landec Ag and Pfizer Animal Health. In fact, GROWMARK has been an R&K client for more than 22 years.

SO, WHAT'S THE SECRET?

After 25 years, Steve (right) and Van have plenty of stories to share.
Van and I have seen a lot of change over the years. We've experienced mergers, business closings, business successes and technological advances that boggle the mind.

However, some things at R&K don't change. Van remains our executive creative director, and I remain the senior account guy. We now have one of the most talented teams of professionals in the business. The key that Van and I learned 25 years ago is to hire good people and let them do their jobs.

And whether you have four employees or 110, that policy will never change. AM

Steve Rhea is president and CEO of Rhea & Kaiser Marketing Communications, Naperville, Ill.


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