Expert Series: Rita Chen, Chicago Marketer

May 9, 2023

This spring I’m celebrating twenty years in the recruiting industry. My daughter helped me determine that I’ve interviewed more than 12,000 people over the course of my career. 12,000! That number prompted me to reflect on certain interviews and people who have inspired me along the way. Throughout this year I’ll share some of my interviews with these impactful people and other influential leaders in marketing and HR.

Rita Chen, Chicago Marketer

To start, I’m thrilled to share a conversation with Rita Chen, Marketing Maven and purveyor of some of Chicago’s most trusted and highlighted brands. From launching an exclusive Prince concert with less than ideal notice, to leading the charge behind Chicago being voted “Best Big City in the U.S.” for an unprecedented six years in a row, Rita’s accomplishments and footprint in marketing create an amazing story.

I met Rita when she was building the marketing that drove City Winery’s Riverwalk location. I’m thrilled that we’ve remained connected as she continues her legacy of building Chicago brands.

Tell us about your marketing journey, ending with your most recent role. Where did you start and where did you land?

“Ground Floor Selling Greeting Cards”

I started my marketing career in sales. It was essential that I understood the customer, their behavior, and their attitudes with the Hallmark products I was selling. It was also an introduction to merchandising. I often climbed on my hands and knees (in skirts because that’s what was required back then!) restocking cards and products at the retailers I was supporting.

It proved to be a great starting point for my career in marketing since it really helped me focus on the end user/audience. After getting my MBA at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I went to work full-time at 3M (where I had interned). It was an amazing learning and nurturing environment where I honed my marketing strategy, research, insights, and project management skills. I learned the importance of questionnaire design and have used those learnings to this day.

I spent nine years in Los Angeles and worked for DreamWorks Home Entertainment and Nestle. I worked in a liaison role in both organizations and what I took away from DreamWorks was an appreciation and understanding of the creative process (and how important a creative brief is) and how important partnerships were to our success. At Nestle I learned about finance, annual planning, and operations.

Building Chicago Brands

I moved home to Chicago to leverage my skillset in a different environment at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, marketing the business school to prospective students and engaging with alumni. Having grown up in the traditional marketing world, I had the best teacher (shout out to Adrienne Nazon) to help me transition to a fully digital marketing world.

That experience helped me as a marketing team of one at City Winery, where I built brand awareness and partnerships throughout the city for the West Loop venue and eventually helped the company secure their downtown Chicago Riverwalk location. I served as lead liaison for City Winery with the City of Chicago for the Riverwalk project, selling the project to the CEO and managing financial projections. I’m proud to say that to this day, the City Winery Riverwalk location has generated millions in incremental revenue for the company and supported the financial responsibilities of the city.

I spent the last seven years at Choose Chicago, the destination marketing organization for the city of Chicago. I led a team of nine people that marketed and promoted Chicago to the world. During my tenure, Chicago was voted Best Big City in the U.S. by Condé Nast Traveler readers for an unprecedented six years in a row (2017 – 2022).

What are some achievements you’re especially proud of?

  1. I pulled off a secret Prince concert at City Winery in 2013. I vividly remember driving on the Eisenhower out of the city to the burbs that Saturday when I got a call from my boss who said “hey, where are you? You need to put a Prince concert on sale” and from there, it was absolutely crazy. I pulled over to the side of the road, called a friend who lived near where I was, and used her computer for the next three hours to put the show on sale (this was before remote work was a thing). I went to my preplanned dinner, drove back to the city around 9pm, took an espresso shot, and got to City Winery at 10pm. Prince got on stage at 1:45am with his 9-piece horn section and it was the most intimate and amazing concert I have ever experienced. I will never forget it—nor should we ever forget Prince’s legacy, may he rest in peace.
  2. Chicago has been voted the Best Big City in the U.S. for an unprecedented six years in a row by Condé Nast Traveler readers. No other city has been voted Best Big City in the U.S. more than three straight times in the 35-year history of the Condé Nast Readers’ Choice Awards. I’m incredibly honored that travelers have voted for Chicago, and here are some ways that the team accomplished this under my leadership:

    • In 2017, we laid the groundwork to be a digital-first marketing team. We made our website responsive and led with a digital-first media strategy. I launched a new global advertising campaign, Welcome Home, in seven global markets (Brazil, Germany, France, French Canada, China, Japan, Mexico) which generated an economic impact of $1.3 billion, year-over-year growth of 8%, raising brand awareness of Chicago around the world.
    • In 2019, I pioneered the website rebuild and redesign, resulting in record growth (exceeding goal by 10% with over 9 million visits). Our website won the Illinois Excellence in Tourism Award in 2021.
    • In 2021, we launched the Seize Your Summer advertising campaign to encourage travelers post-pandemic. We leveraged new audience segmentation research completed in early 2021 to prioritize and target high-impact travelers.
    • We launched a new marketing campaign, When You Go You Know, in the summer of 2022 which generated an economic impact of $390 million and a $512 return on media investment.

What advice would you give or what pitfalls would you like to share to avoid to those working their way up the ranks in marketing?

  1. Have patience. People are used to getting things NOW. Perhaps Amazon Prime has ruined us (ha!). But in your career, take the time to learn all you can in your current organization and make it known that you want to learn more. You may be in an organization that doesn’t have a lot of upward mobility, so look to the sides and other departments to gain knowledge and experience.
  2. Ask for help and support when needed. Don’t suffer in silence. I asked for an executive coach early on in my tenure at Choose Chicago and it was a transformational experience. Many of these opportunities come with a price tag, so be prepared to state your business case and why it would be beneficial to the organization. And, as you climb the ladder, you may find you need support from different places. You might not be able to ask a colleague for their advice anymore. It sometimes is lonelier at the top.

During a career pause, how do you find or make space to create the path forward?

I’m embracing this time to reset and renew as it’s an opportunity for me to get even more clear on my purpose and path as I enter a new phase of my career.  I have a few books on my list: Designing Your Life, by Bill Burnett & Dave Evans, and From Paycheck to Purpose, by Ken Coleman.

I’m also continuing to network and find out more about different industries, different roles and opportunities, from friends and connections to explore, to discover.

I have also been in touch with the Women’s Business Development Center in Chicago, a wonderful resource for women who are considering being entrepreneurs. I have been a solopreneur before and since I have time, which I fully acknowledge is a gift, I am exploring all the paths.

I recently traveled to Singapore and Bali on a family vacation. I am so grateful this vacation was planned last year. I got to spend time with my family, including my nieces who are two and five. It was an amazing time to start the healing and renewing journey.

As women how can we help each other through difficult career moments?

Reach out and offer support. The support doesn’t have to be all the tips and resources and contacts. Sometimes support is listening. Sometimes support is having a coffee or sharing a meal together. Sometimes support is taking a walk together. Sometimes you have amazing friends that will feature you in their blogs and publications, so you have content to share! (editor’s note: thank you, Rita!).

And sometimes it’s not even the people closest to you that may reach out to you first. When I announced on social and started telling people of my career change, I had a woman who was a freelancer at my last company reach out and take me to lunch and send me flowers. During our lunch she shared that she’s always admired me and loved working with me. It was really moving. Another colleague from 3M reached out to offer to chat and listen and offer tips and resources she’s learned in the past year. We hadn’t talked in over twenty years, but we picked up the conversation like no time had passed. Another former colleague from Los Angeles also reached out and asked how she could help.

What qualities do you believe make someone a successful marketing leader?

There are a few things in my toolbox that have helped me as a marketing leader:

  1. Have a marketing vision for your team. My executive coach had me complete an amazing exercise: prepare your stump speech, from Susan Scott’s book, *Fierce Conversations:* Achieving Success at Work and in Life, One Conversation at a Time.
    • This is where we’re going.
    • This is why we’re going there.
    • This is who is going with us.
    • This is how we’re going to get there.
  2. Always understand your audience. And your audience may have changed since the pandemic. I conducted research in early 2021 as we were coming out of the pandemic to really target those high impact travelers because not everyone was ready to travel. People’s attitudes and behaviors had changed. Keep a pulse on who it is that you’re marketing to and most importantly, invest in research.
  3. Connect the dots. There’s a lot of data in today’s world. How can you present a story of the facts and data to your leadership, to your board, so that people outside of your day-to-day world will understand it? Taking information, watching trends, and translating data into actionable insights is a key skill to have in any industry and in any function.

Our Gratitude

Our team at Elevation Talent Group takes pride in both the clients we work with and the marketing and human resources talent that we represent. I’m honored to partner with this organization’s leadership who truly value the relationships that make our growing start-up a success in nationwide staffing augmentation—and we would not be successful without each relationship we’ve made along the way.

Thank you, Rita, for your participation and for the privilege of knowing you all these years!

Follow Rita!

You can learn more about Rita on her website: (Follow Rita’s baking adventures!)

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