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Opinion and Insight

Chicago: The Goldilocks Zone for Creatives?

Creatives from R/GA, Leo Burnett, Framestore, Whitehouse, FCB and the Mill tell Jason Caines why Chicago’s affordability, accessibility and friendliness make it a nurturing home for the creative community

Chicago: The Goldilocks Zone for Creatives?

In our working lives finding the sweet spot between lifestyle, work opportunities and affordability is a perpetual search. It seems like Chicago might well have the edge on the competition. People seeking competitive jobs with a relaxed lifestyle are finding the city to be cheaper and more cheerful then other cities without the horrendously packed commute. 

To better understand why Chicago has been described as the perfect fit for many members of the American advertising industry, we sat down with people from R/GA, Leo Burnett, Framestore, Whitehouse, FCB and The Mill to understand, why the city suits them all just right. 

Deb Schimmel, is an Editor at Whitehouse Post, and was born in Chicago. She has lived in the city her whole life, so is well versed in its charms. Growing up she lived in the ‘burbs before moving into the city and for the past 20 years she’s been based in the increasingly trendy Ukranian Village. And as a lifelong Chicagoan, her view is that the city just strikes the perfect balance. “I’ve always felt that Chicago is the “Goldilocks Bed” of the industry - not too manic & cutthroat, not too chill & laid-back,” she says.

The idea that, like Kepler 22b, Chicago occupies one of those rare ‘Goldilocks zones’ is one that resonates. Mikinzie Stuart, a copywriter at R/GA describes it as “slower than New York, faster than LA”, while her colleague Matt Mortimer says it ‘feels like a small, big city”.

For Leo Burnett copywriter Annie Sandford, that vibe means that Chicago is much more tolerable – both psychologically and in terms of cost. “I think the pace is so much more bearable than NYC. The streets are wider and cleaner, there’s much more green space, the neighbourhoods are beautiful, and the cost of living is way more manageable,” she says.

One thing all the creatives love is the small town feel within the accessibility of larger city. However, that does not mean Chicago is lacking in space. 

Natalia Fredericks, who’s the Art Director and Creative Lead on Constellation Brands at R/GA moved from Texas to the Near North area for the dog parks. Considering Texas is renowned for its size and space this really shows just how much rural space Chicago can offer to its inhabitants.

She says, “I’ve described Chicago as the perfect combination of New York and Los Angeles. You have the skyline, architecture, and bustling downtown of New York combined with the beach town vibe of LA. 

The spice of life

But Natalia also explains that living in Chicago doesn’t come without its hardships and although it is less pacey than other NY and LA she reveals the key quality creatives need to make things work and thrive in the city.

“Grit. It’s a competitive city and there are so many gifted, creative spirits here. I find that having vision and the steady determination to achieve it will help any talented creative make a name for themselves. A strong curiosity and thirst for discovery will also serve you well. You can find inspiration in the best museums and sculptures, but you should also look for them in a great meal, an architectural surprise, and the way light bounces off Chicago’s buildings and floods parts of the city.”

Chicago also contains a diverse range of cultures and people, says Erica Hilbert, a senior producer at The Mill Chicago. It may be in the centre of the country, but it’s no flyover. “Chicago is quite a melting pot of people from not only all over the country, but all over the world.  It has become such a sophisticated city with so many different industries.  It has a lot to offer people of all different walks of life, everyone can find a unique neighbourhood to live and work in,” she says.

And that diversity means that there’s plenty to occupy the most curious creative mind. After all, Ferris Bueller is one of the city’s most famous fictional residents, so you’d expect there to be plenty to do on an impromptu day off.  From the any bars and restaurants to heavy hitting cultural institutions, like the Art Institute of Chicago – best known to the world’s adfolk as the home of the multiaward winning Van Gogh’s Bedroom campaign from Leo Burnett – it’s not lacking.


Don’t call it a second city

But for all its amenities, space and energy, the city lacks the magnetic pull of Madison Avenue or Silicon Valley. Derek Heinze, ACD, at R/GA explains some of the reasons why many creatives around the US have not yet discovered the benefits of living in Chicago yet.
“There’s a misconception that you have to be in San Francisco or New York to do great work, but that’s not true. You may have to work harder to find the right opportunities, but everyone should be doing that anyway. And, let’s get real… it’s cheaper to live in Chicago than The Bay or NYC, the food is amazing and the city has endless fun things to do.”

In fact, most of the people we spoke to believe that the rest of the US have an inaccurate view of Chicago. The suggestion that it’s in any way a ‘second city’ to New York or Los Angeles are batted away.

Framestore’s, Head of Production Raven Sia, for example, really feels that the city has been treated unjustly over the years.  “To be honest, the names Second City and Third Coast don't do Chicago justice. Though, I do feel that Chicago gets a whole "middle child" wrap. Despite that, or maybe because of that, the food, culture, creativity and innovation explodes in this city. Chicago inspires me because it does everything well and also because there's room to grow here - both physically and creatively. A lot of other cities don't have that feeling anymore."

That’s a sentiment that Erica at The Mill echoes. Having worked in both LA and NY, the steadfast and friendly Midwestern city draws her back. It’s ‘blue collar roots’ mean that it’s a hardworking city with nothing to prove.


People power

In truth, the key to Chicago’s popularity with its creative community has as much to do with that friendliness as it has to do with any amenities. “A lot of it has to do with the people, for me, people tend to be more open and receptive to forming relationships in Chicago, which makes working with complete strangers easier and more enjoyable,” says Erica. “The size definitely helps, you can have relationships with people from all over the city, because it doesn’t really take that long to get to other parts of the city to see each other. People seem to be settled here, not looking for the next big thing, their heads aren’t on swivels, there is focus in conversation and relationships seem more genuine.”

Over at FCB Chicago, Jennifer Chiang, who is SVP Strategic Planning, agrees that sense of community that the city fosters is unique. “I think Chicago’s advantage is depth of experience and advertising culture. In my experience the community is more tight-knit in Chicago. And, I’ve been able to focus and grow more here than I would have if I had stayed in LA,” she says.

Jonny Freeman at The Mill is a transplant from London and he also finds the city an easier place to move up (the career ladder) and move around (generally). “Chicago is an easier place to progress and understand the industry as here we are a much smaller office making it easier to understand workflow and also interact with more staff in various departments. The city itself is much easier to get around and easier to afford places to live closer to work rather than a long commute each day.”

Not too warm… not too cold… well…

So it’s got the career progression without the cutthroat competition. And the sense of space without the sense of remoteness. The entertainment without the brain-melting crowds. A well-established creative industry without the high fallutin’ pretention of the country’s coast. It looks like this Goldilocks analogy might just be perfect for  Chicago – even the local baseball team is called the Chicago Cubs. The only complaint we heard were the dark, cold Chicago winters, but it’s a small price to pay for living in the home of Ferris Bueller.