During four decades as a quintessential Chicago ad man, Ron Bess has steered campaigns for clients from McDonald's to Gatorade while climbing the ranks at some of the city's most prominent agencies.

Bess, a natural pitchman, well-schooled leader and unequivocally the Chicago advertising community's biggest booster, has navigated sea changes that have taken the industry from television to Twitter, from independent shops to international holding companies, and from suits and ties to T-shirts and jeans.

Although most of the colleagues he broke in with have long since left the game, Bess, CEO of Euro RSCG Chicago, shows no signs of slowing.

"I'm 65, and that's a very, very unusual number in this business," he said.

Bess has diligently evolved with the industry, discarding ties (but not his signature blazers), embracing all things digital and retooling the agency model to fully integrate traditional with cutting edge. By all accounts, it's working pretty well at the once-faltering Euro Chicago, whose fortunes have risen dramatically during his seven years at the helm.

Barely scraping by on direct marketing business when Bess arrived in 2004, Euro Chicago has significantly bolstered its digital and traditional advertising portfolio with recent high-profile wins, including Pucker Vodka, Cracker Barrel and Reynolds Wrap/Hefty. The agency is projecting 17 percent revenue growth this year and adding staff at a comparable rate.

"A lot of people didn't think this agency would survive, because it had fallen down," Bess said. "Now we're one of the fastest-growing and most significant-sized agencies in the community."

The Bloomington, Ill., native, attended the University of Illinois on a football scholarship, where his adaptability and tenacity made him an All-Big Ten player. The 6-foot, 193-pound halfback his first three seasons was named captain for his final year, in 1967. He was switched to defense back after suffering an ankle injury but adjusted quickly, proving himself the consummate ballhawk and setting the Illini single-game and single-season records for interception return yardage, marks that still stand almost a half-century later.

Bess, a marketing major in college, served in the National Guard after graduating in 1969, then moved to Chicago, where he spent a year in the Inland Steel management training program. He returned to Champaign in 1971 to continue his studies in communications, mostly so he could serve as a graduate assistant on the staff of first-year Illini football coach Bob Blackman. Bess soon discovered that he loved advertising more than football.

Armed with that knowledge and a master's degree, Bess headed back to Chicago in 1972, landing as an account executive at Foote, Cone & Belding (now Draftfcb), where he worked on packaged-goods giants Kimberly-Clark and SC Johnson.

Big-picture view

In 1975, Bess moved to Needham Harper Steers (now DDB), which was creating seminal advertising for McDonald's with its "You deserve a break today" campaign.

"I got promoted from account supervisor to account director in less than a year, and so I was running all of the McDonald's account at 29," Bess said. "That was my big leap forward. It was a very exciting and stimulating experience."

While at Needham, Bess also developed the agency's relationship with Anheuser-Busch, leading the team that helped turn Bud Light into the top-selling beer brand in the world. His elevated role earned him a seat on the agency's creative and strategic review boards, and a crucial view of the big picture.

"That gave me exposure to all of the accounts that we did business with, and that gave me exposure to the management team inner circle," Bess said. "It gave me opportunities to see a lot more of how decisions were made, strategically and creatively, across all the accounts in the agency."

Bess left the agency in 1987 to start his own firm, Bayer Bess Vanderwarker, which was born out of the forced divestiture of Backer & Spielvogel's Chicago office. Among the key accounts acquired was Gatorade, which was still very much a niche sports drink at the time. Bayer Bess helped propel Gatorade into a mass-appeal, multibillion-dollar brand with the iconic "Be Like Mike" campaign featuring Chicago Bulls superstar Michael Jordan.

In 1996, Bayer Bess was acquired by True North Communications, then the parent company of Foote, Cone & Belding. Back where he started, the former account executive trainee was named to head FCB Chicago, and two years later was promoted to president of FCB Worldwide.

In 1999, the Chicago advertising loyalist left FCB, packed up and moved to New York to head Young & Rubicam's diversified communications group, which included all of the agency's nonadvertising companies. It was an enjoyable and mostly successful five-year run, said Bess, but a change in top management and direction led to an acrimonious departure.

His firsthand experience in the Big Apple gave him a renewed appreciation for the Second City.