‘Don’t be in any way inclined to follow traditional career paths’

Fergus Rooney counts former US president Barack Obama and Hilton Worldwide among his clients

 

Wild Geese: Fergus Rooney, Agency EA, Chicago

Fergus Rooney was working in London in 1994 when he got a “use it or lose it” letter about a green card he won several years before.

“It was amazing that I got the letter in the first place. I wasn’t really keeping up with forwarding addresses,” he said.

Rooney had studied hospitality management in Trinity College. He then made his way to London to work for the Marlborough Hotel in events, including at Wimbledon and the Henley Regatta.

Rooney decided to fly to the States “”to have a look” and got his visa stamped in New York, aged 27. He went to Chicago to see friends and ended up staying there.

He started working in sales for Blue Plate, an off-premise catering company. “They were at about $3 million revenue at the time and became one of the bigger companies in Chicago with around $25 million revenue.”

By 1999, Rooney, who is from Dalkey, had spent five years at Blue Plate. He had met his Texan wife Gabrielle and they were expecting baby Sophia. “We decided to buy a house, have a baby and start a business at the same time,” he said.

A new agency

The couple founded an experiential marketing agency, which started out as Event Architects and later rebranded to Agency EA.

“If you take traditional advertising, such as a 30-second slot on TV or a clickbait ad on the internet, nobody does that anymore. Experiential marketing provides creative branding solutions to other corporate companies.

“We’re taking that 30-second spot and we’re making it real in the physical world and meeting consumers. When they walk away, they’ll remember that they had a Cliff bar at the Renegade Festival in Chicago or they’ll remember that they went on the Trip of a Lifetime with Oprah Winfrey, ” Rooney said.

Agency EA now has more than 100 employees, mainly based in Chicago. Fergus and Gabrielle recently launched the Savage Smyth event space on the fourth floor of their premises to make the most of their skyline view of downtown Chicago.

“We called it Savage Smyth because that was the name of the bottling company my family had in Dublin in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s that was sold to United Distillers,” says Rooney.

Agency EA was also involved with another big name in Chicago – Barack Obama. They planned upwards of 15 events during Obama’s campaign phase and during his first inauguration, as well as a strategic redesign of the White House holiday events.

Around the world

One of Agency EA’s biggest undertakings was Oprah’s Trip of a Lifetime, which took 2,000 people all over Europe in a nine-city tour via private plane in 2011.

“We also did her trip down under when we took her last audience to Australia for 10 days. We did two live shows for 6,000 people each on the steps of Sydney opera house,” said Rooney.

With clients like Hilton Worldwide, Dell and Boeing, it’s a busy work life for Rooney. This is thanks to their policy of never saying no.

“That links back to Trinity in terms of hospitality and having the ability to say yes and smile, and give people a sense of calm if they want to achieve something,” he said.

“Be it a graphic artist or a production executive producer, they are in house. Not only can we say we can assemble the right team, we can also say come by the office, we can do an orientation meeting with those people in the room,” he said.

Rooney said that being Irish “will never hurt you” in somewhere like Chicago. The Irish accent helps you stand out but timing also helps, he said.

“If you get somewhere where they’re behind the curve of somewhere like London, then you’re able to have good ideas which might be very innovative to the people you’re speaking to,” he said.

Career advice

He advises anyone starting out not to be tempted to follow traditional career paths.

“I think people in their mid to late-twenties are going to have many jobs so experimenting with what you feel comfortable with is going to be different than what your parents feel comfortable with.

“The other thing I’d say is that you have to work hard and you have to understand that the work you do today may only come into focus for you 10 years from now. There’s no short cut. Just keep on plugging away and don’t be afraid to ask for help,” he said.

The world has become a global village as Agency EA has grown. Online means that the differences in business culture are becoming less distinct in places like London, Paris, Berlin and Sydney, said Rooney.

“What they have in common that they’re big talent centres. They have detailed, agile communication – that’s the business language of the world,” he said.

In the future, Rooney wants to stay ahead of the curve by mixing physical and digital events. “The digital frontier and how it relates to marketing and communications in a smart and agile way is what’s next,” he said.

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