By: Alyssa DiJoseph
Homecoming Week at U of I brings many different alumni from all walks of life to campus, and this year is no different. Illini Comeback is a program that was founded in the 1980’s to honor prominent alumni. Coordinated by the Student Alumni Ambassadors and sponsored by the University of Illinois Alumni Association, the program invites honorees back to campus to interact with students and staff during Homecoming Week both through formal and informal activities, such as classroom visits and social events. Ron Bess, one of the biggest names in the Chicago advertising world, is one of 2012’s Illini Comeback honorees. At age 66, Ron Bess has been in the business for 40 years, and is still going strong. He is the current President of Havas Worldwide North America and CEO of Havas Worldwide Chicago (both formerly Euro RSCG), an agency which, upon his arrival in 2004, was suffering, with traditional advertising composing less than 20% of the agency’s revenue. Since then, Bess has created a successful turnaround by, “merging the agency’s direct marketing business with new digital and creative initiatives.” As of 2011, Havas CHI had projected 17% revenue growth, and began hiring just as quickly. They have gained recent high profile clients including Pucker Vodka, Cracker Barrel, and Hefty/Reynolds Wrap.
Bess’s experience over the years has certainly contributed to his tremendous success with the dying agency. Bess attended U of I on a football scholarship; he was captain his senior year, and was named an All-Big Ten Player. He majored in Marketing as an undergrad, and upon graduating in 1969, served in the National Guard. He returned to Champaign in 1971 to obtain his Masters in Advertising, and in 1972, moved back to Chicago to take a job as an account executive with Foot, Cone, & Belding (now known as Draftfcb). In 1975, he transferred to Needham Harper Steers, better known by us Advertising majors by its current name, DDB. By age 29, he was singlehandedly managing the agency’s entire McDonald’s account. He also worked with Anheuser-Busch to make Bud Light a top selling beer, landing him a position on DDB’s creative and strategic review boards.
In 1987, Bess founded his own agency entitled Bayer Bess Vanderwarker. Bayer Bess was the genius behind Gatorade’s “Be Like Mike” campaign, featuring Michael Jordan, back when he was a Bulls player. The campaign helped propel the product from a nice sports drink to an iconic, multi-billion dollar brand. In 1996, the agency was acquired by FCB, landing him as the head of FCB Chicago, and later the president of FCB Worldwide.
In 1999, after years as an all-star in Chicago’s advertising world, Bess packed up and moved to New York to work for Young & Rubicam for a five year stint. Having worked in both cities, he developed a concrete opinion about which he believes to be the better city. Believe it or not, he says Chicago. Therefore, when offered the opportunity to take control at Havas CHI (then Euro RSCG) back in Chicago, he didn’t hesitate.
Now here we are in 2012, and Bess is still a force to be reckoned with in the business. He has proved to be an accomplished alumnus of the university, and is still involved to this day. He is a member of the UI Foundation and has served on the boards of the UI Athletic Association and the Department of Advertising’s James Webb Young Fund. He is a lifetime member of the Alumni Association and was named Chicago Illini of the Year in 2010. On behalf of the College of Media, all the Advertising majors, AAF Illinois, and Ad Buzz, we proudly welcome Ron Bess to our campus.