Creative Class Acts

With the ad business in tumult, BBDO's past and future creative gurus talk about what it will take to succeed in a TiVo-driven world.

I confess, I was hoping for a smackdown. A sort of War of the Worlds of advertising philosophies. In one corner, in neatly pressed trousers and black cashmere sweater, would be BBDO's diminutive King of Old Media, Phil Dusenberry, defending the 30-second spot, the Super Bowl blowout, and the wall-to-wall network blitz. In the other corner, in jeans and a rumpled T-shirt, would be his successor and nemesis, the agency's Young Turk of Nontraditional Media, David Lubars, dismissing such Paleolithic thinking in favor of cutting-edge technologies.

Body slams weren't required, but a few sharp exchanges a la Carville and Novak would have been nice. But real life rarely provides such dramatically satisfying black-and-white distinctions, and this was no exception. The two agreed: The Super Bowl isn't going to be replaced by weird chickens-in-bondage Web sites. People will continue to spend a lot of time in front of the tube. And big brands are still willing to spend big bucks with big agencies. Don King, your job is safe.

So what's left to talk about? A lot. Despite the supposed recovery, the ad business is still in a funk. No industry confab can adjourn without hand-wringing over clutter, fragmentation, and disappearing demographics. (Where are those lost boys, ages 18 to 24?) And few duos are better positioned to speculate on what it all means than Dusenberry and Lubars, the past and current creative directors of one of the country's largest and most prestigious agencies.

A legend in the industry, Dusenberry boasts a resume that includes campaigns not only for GE ("We bring good things to life") and Pepsi (from coining the "Pepsi Generation" theme to the infamous Michael Jackson spot) but also for Ronald Reagan's 1984 reelection bid. Clients still gush over Dusenberry, who retired in 2002. "The hallmark of working with Phil," says former PepsiCo chairman Roger Enrico, "was that he'd make your imagination soar with his storyboards, but then his ads were always even better than you had imagined."

Lubars, who joined the agency in September of last year, was already a star, having earned cachet at Minneapolis-based Fallon Worldwide as the architect of the BMW Internet films, a campaign deemed so groundbreaking that in 2003 the Cannes International Advertising Festival created an entire new category — a Titanium Lion — to recognize it. Between that and his work for Citibank (most famously, the hilarious identity-theft series) and Lee jeans, he seemed the ideal guy to carry the torch, deliver smart work — and be sufficiently geeky to appreciate smart mobs, podcasting, and communication along the lines of "wut r u doing 2nite?"

After a year at the creative helm, Lubars has already made his influence felt, with awards, new accounts — Mitsubishi, eBay, e*Trade, and Levitra — and exciting new work. But for all that he has been exalted as the Face of a New Generation, he'd tell you he's more Dusenberry 2.0 than a whole new operating system. Both believe in the power of big insights, both insist the work has to be so entertaining that consumers gravitate to it, and both lament the current craze for return-on-investment-driven advertising.

But there are also clear differences. In the Dusenberry era, employees joked that BBDO stood for "bring it back and do it over." Dusenberry says the ability to stop bad work is the only power a creative director really has, and boasts that his office was called the "quake zone" because of the fear he struck in even senior people. "The more they quake, the less they'll waste your time with work that's less than their best," he writes in his memoir, Then We Set His Hair on Fire (see excerpt, page 80).

Lubars says his style leans more toward the inclusive than the intimidating. "I want people to challenge me. I want them to feel they can step up and bring ideas. I insist on not being the smartest guy in the room. But if I hear everything, then I can help craft the smartest idea in the room. Here's the thing: Phil was a genius. I'm not a genius, so I need other people to help me do genius things."

In the end, he says, it comes down to BBDO's fervently embraced mantra: The work, the work, the work. "Our boss," Lubars says, "is the work. And it's a very mean and cruel boss who will humiliate you in public if you don't satisfy it. You must please that work and make it feel like you've given it your all. That's what Phil did, and what I'm going to do."

Fast Company: Let's cut right to the chase. Read any of the industry publications, and you're likely to hear about the imminent death of the 30-second spot. That has been BBDO's claim to fame. Is this the end of your franchise?
Dusenberry: The 30-second commercial is much maligned. But if it's entertaining, if it's sharp, if it's clear, if it makes a great point, if it really socks home something that people can appreciate, they're going to want to watch it. But unless your commercial passes the test — "Hey, here comes that great commercial. I want to see it again" — you're going to get passed by.
Lubars: The popular thing in our industry right now is to pooh-pooh TV and say it's a dead medium, a 20th-century dinosaur. The ironic thing is, I'm partly responsible for it. The things they always cite are the BMW and Amazon Internet films. But I love TV commercials, and people still watch a lot of TV. The difference is, in the old days, you had three networks and a couple of local stations. And they could roadblock a commercial, so even if you flipped the channel, it was also running on the other station. But now, for the first time you have the choice of what you will and won't watch. There are hundreds of options, and you can flick things away like flies. So TV shows and commercials have to be a lot better now than they used to be. Essentially, we're trying to reverse the polarity, the electric flow of 100-plus years of marketing history, making the audience come to us. So I sit around with a bunch of people who are trying to come up with something so cool, so awesome that people will actually spend a precious 10 minutes of their lives hanging with our brand.

FC: Put yourself in the consumers' chair. Wouldn't you be tempted to click off the bad stuff?
Lubars: I've had TiVo since '99. Being paranoid, I buy everything that comes out to try to keep us from becoming obsolete. So I have a closetful of stuff that nobody uses. But TiVo isn't in there because I use it, particularly for cable TV, where the commercial pods can be as long as five and a half minutes. To me that's abusive. Of course you're going to get zapped.

FC: So what's your anti-TiVo strategy?
Lubars: We've been thinking about going to the networks and suggesting that they put little 15- or 30-second scenes from the show in the pod to entertain viewers during the commercials so they don't want to leave. Say you're watching Friends, and during the pods you could see some funny outtakes from the scene you just saw — a DVD extra kind of thing. Or what if there was something funny going on at the bottom of the screen during the commercials, the way ESPN does scores? It's just one more thing to keep things interesting, to keep you from zapping.

"The landscape is changing. Agencies and advertisers who fail to recognize that are going to get lost in the shuffle."

FC: Is it hard to get clients to go along with some of these wacky ideas?
Dusenberry: The whole landscape is changing, and those agencies and advertisers who fail to recognize that are going to get lost in the shuffle. It's a slow change, more evolutionary than revolutionary. But even clients who initially resisted are now beginning to realize that they need to move forward or they'll come up short in the end. The really smart clients are saying, "I want something different that's going to break through the pack." Those are the clients we agency people love to have, since they're the ones who are really going to give us the opportunity to knock the doors down. Agencies fall on their knees for clients like that.
Lubars: This will sound funny coming from me, since I've been pegged in the press as the new-media guy. I didn't do BMW and Amazon to change the paradigm. I did Internet films because those clients were desperate and they said, "Solve this because what you're doing isn't working." Desperation is the friend of trying new things. Like Phil said, it has always been about having a giant idea, an insight. The only difference now is that instead of three places where we can put it — broadcast, print, and radio — there are now eight places we can go.

FC: But a lot of those little things can suck up time and energy and not deliver the bang for the buck that a broadcast TV commercial does. Isn't BBDO too big an agency to get involved in this low-margin little stuff?
Lubars: Nothing's too small! As long as the client believes in the power of what creativity can do. A big agency playing small ball is still worth a premium.

FC: So how small are you willing to go?
Lubars: A guy just came in here who paints really beautiful murals on store gates. He did Rheingold Beer in the meatpacking district. Why wouldn't you add all these things to your arsenal instead of being closed off? What disappoints Phil and me about some of our peers is that they claim it's too hard to think about this new stuff so they say, "Let's just stay with 30-second spots."

FC: How much of what you're doing now is driven by clients' demands for return on investment?
Dusenberry: Very often clients are under the gun to show results and are leaning on their agencies to show whether the advertising is working or not. Now, some categories are easier to measure than others. Every Monday morning, Pizza Hut knows exactly where it stands. It's a different game with Pepsi or soap or cereal. You don't get those kinds of report cards with results so clearly measured. But more and more, we're being asked to step up and be accountable.
Lubars: But there's a point where gut instinct and experience and talent are valid measurement tools, too. Too much testing can squeeze all the juice out of things that would delight people and get them to act. Mix smart testing and the right data with experience and talent, and you can create that special magical thing. I think some of these CMOs need to strap on a pair and believe what they believe in.

FC: There's now a school of thought that says the power in the business is shifting to the media-buying agencies. Where does that leave the creatives?
Lubars: I have a big countertheory. Within the next five years, I think you'll see media actually come back into the agencies. As the new technologies change 30 times a day, they become inseparable from the new creative that has to go through them. But if I'm wrong and that happens, it would be terrible. If you're deciding media buys before creative, you would never have had BMW films or Subservientchicken.com.

FC: But couldn't a good media shop say, "Look, we want to reach kids. Give us something cool that can run on a cell phone"?
Lubars: That would be like doing creative without strategy. Creative helps drive where the media is going to go. It can't be done in an assembly line like a Ford plant from 1908. Sometimes you have a great strategy on paper, but it doesn't execute. So the creative and the strategy work together like in a DNA molecule. Media has to work like that, too. Media is now a creative job. It's not just, "How many exposures can I get for this amount of money?" It's also, "What delightful interesting places can I put my client in that are relevant but fit the creative?" It has to be woven together.

FC: What worries you most about the business now?
Dusenberry: My greatest fear about this industry is that the people who are in it now, and in the future, won't have as much fun as we had. We had a great time. It was just wonderful to create work, it was wonderful shooting it and producing it. Today the business is more of a dollars-and-cents game. Because a lot of clients are very test oriented, and want to see the results, creative people are not so quick to take chances and do things that are exciting and different and breakthrough. We can all learn about new ways of putting our messages out there, but it takes a special agency to create an idea that can live for a long time. That's what BBDO has done over the years, is famous for, and will continue to do. nFC

Linda Tischler (ltischler@fastcompany.com) is a Fast Company senior writer.

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