The New Kid on the Rock

Can new BBDO CCO Dave Lubars make New York advertising groovy again?

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Lubars: "This is the last time BBDO will look like this."
"This is the last time BBDO will look like this."

Dave Lubars is gesturing around his completely unremarkable interim office and speaking generally of BBDO New York's look -- a classic study in Early Dusty Pink Corporate Maze. But given his proclivities, prevailing conditions at the time of his arrival and the new leadership at the agency, let's assume Lubars' declaration will result in more than a paint job and a new panini grill.

Lubars was given the official title of chairman/chief creative officer, BBDO North America, by recently minted worldwide CEO Andrew Robertson. Lubars' other, unofficial titles -- Change Agent, Media Innovation Poster Man and Official Representative of the New Guard -- just happened. It's hard to think of a higher-profile post, or one that comes laden with more actual and symbolic significance. The Lubars-in/Ted Sann-out shuffle wasn't just another creative refresher. It was a regime change, ushering in the era when Big Advertising shifted its orientation from the TV-centric to the idea-centric model. Forget about turning around a battleship -- it's getting the blowtorch out and refashioning the battleship into a jet fighter. A battleship-sized jetfighter. Lubars' aim is to create a New York agency that looks forward yet incorporates the soul of advertising's fondly recalled but seemingly distant finest hour -- a golden hued place where personalities and ideas were big and brash, spirits were consumed at lunch and agencies ruled. As is his wont, Lubars boils his mission down to a sentence: "The thing here is: Can you create a 21st century version of a killer '60s New York agency?"

EDS "Running with the Squirrels"
In pursuing the answer, Lubars and Robertson both naturally emphasize the "and not or" approach. Lubars says the new regime is less about turning away from TV and more about reshaping BBDO as an idea oasis amid the scorching sands and cruel mirages of the ad industry. Lubars good-naturedly bristles at the "anti-TV guy" label he feels has sometimes been slapped on him. "There's always going to be TV commercials, too," Lubars says, noting the huge part they've played in his own career, accounting for two recent spot Emmys (PBS' "Photobooth" and "Fish"), to say nothing of the many Super Bowl appearances (EDS' "Cat Herders" is one of his own favorites) and countless other citations for skillful 30-secondry. "And BBDO is obviously really great at that," he says. "So if we can complement the stuff they are already great at with some of this new kind of thinking, what would it turn out to be? I don't know the answer, but we're going to find out." And if he's not anti-TV guy, neither is he just online guy, but he is make-consumers-come-to-you guy. "I don't care what the medium is," he says, citing Adidas' "Vertical Football" coup as an example. "If it makes you love a brand more, if you actually go seek it out, it kind of changes the game."

It's that approach, of course that Lubars had gained a reputation for fostering during his six year tenure at Fallon, where he had most recently acted as president of Fallon Worldwide and CCO of Fallon North America. The fact that, "Yeah, but it was no BMW Films," has become a part of everyday ad lexicon (heard most frequently from awards show jurors) is an unsubtle reminder of the impact of that campaign. Before and in the shadow of that project, though, the agency had also encouraged other clients in innovative directions. Naturally, Lubars looks back at BMW Films as a career highlight, citing pride that "we threw convention to the wind to solve a tough marketing problem." The agency had brought Lee jeans into the new-media realm with "The Buddy Lee Challenge" videogame a year before and won a Cannes Media Grand Prix last year for client Archipelago.

The creative resumé, a forward thinking rep and, likely, a more compatible, outgoing personality accounted for Robertson's decision to back Lubars for the new role. "David is a forceful, energetic, passionate creative leader, who is excited by this new work and the opportunities it represents," says Robertson. "He has a track record of being responsible for getting brilliant TV and print advertising out of an agency and also for boldly going where no one has gone before in exploring new areas."

Robertson's annointment of Lubars was certainly the biggest staffing deal at the agency, but not the only one lately. There were prominent shifts in Detroit and Minneapolis, in addition to Robertson's appointment of under-40 New York president John Osborn. Creative engine Gerry Graf steamed off to TBWA late last year, leaving a cavernous void that was soon filled by ex Cliff Freeman CD Eric Silver, an elite member of the awards show frequent winner program. It was a big move for Silver, who came up in the smaller agency world. "What made BBDO appealing was the ability to carve out a small group within this admittedly big corporation," says Silver. "It was encouraging that over the years all the ECDs consistently found ways to achieve success within their individual hamlets." And Silver's coterie similarly reflects a smaller agency ethic, with creatives assembled from Wieden, Ground Zero, Berlin Cameron, BBH and Cliff Freeman & Partners.

PBS "Fish"
Lubars, who was brought into the BBDO fold first in 1993 by then-CEO of BBDO West Steve Hayden, launched his career in Providence at Leonard Monahan (which he would later rejoin as a partner) before being recruited by TBWA/Chiat/Day L.A. in 1984. "I was very young and very lucky to train with the master [Lee Clow]." When Lubars joined BBDO West, the agency's task was moving beyond the precarious position of being primarily a one-account shop -- something that was especially pressing given the one account was Apple and it wasn't a model of stability at the time.

While Lubars says he's not one for the instant grand plan, he is a fan of zeroing in on his primary mandate with a simple mission statement, aka, the sentence. It's something he's done for each of his agency gigs. "At BBDO West," he says, "it was ‘Go from one account to many.' " Recalling the early Fallon days, Lubars says that the sentence came out of a realization about doing work for mass market advertisers. "When we got let go from Miller, everyone was like 'Good, fuck them. They should lose it.' How come everyone was so mad at us? I realized that when you have smaller accounts that are vertical targets -- an account that's talking to 15-year-old boys -- it's one thing. Then you start winning bigger accounts with horizontal targets -- it's not just the 15-year-old, it's grandma, too. My whole thing at Fallon was, ‘We have to go from polarizing to populist.' It's something BBDO is brilliant at and has always been brilliant at -- doing highly creative, Cannes-winning but populist work."

Lubars' current '60s-meets-'00s mission statement is equally pithy on paper, though infinite in its executional implications. Combining the spirit of the industry's golden age with the technological and media and cultural opportunities of today will result, he says, in "an oasis on the island where there will be all these great people who've never been invited in. So in addition to art directors and copywriters, you have designers, technologists and others," he says. "It lifts the place up." Put another way, it's about "reducing the beats." Those would be the silent seconds that pass before one answers the question, "What's the leading agency in New York?" "If I'm honest, if you say San Francisco, you say Goodby. If you say Miami, you say Crispin. Say L.A. and you say Chiat. When you say New York, I think there are some beats. When you think about it, you say BBDO. But I don't want any pauses." Lubars acknowledges that New York is not the axis of creativity that it is in business or media. "BBDO is great now, I just want to take it to another level -- reduce the beats." Citing the strong work for Mountain Dew and FedEx, Lubars says the way forward "is to do more great work with more clients than anyone else."

Achieving it all, though, is certainly more of a challenge given the agency's size and the fact that media and interactive operate outside the walls. It will be interesting to see how Lubars brings the agency's Atmosphere interactive shop and Omnicom media arm OMD -- physically and procedurally -- into the creative core of the agency.

Lubars is certainly not moving to institute the Big Overhaul willy nilly. Though he is someone who seems to move fairly quickly (on day four at BBDO -- and that's pre official start day of September 7 -- it's clear things are already percolating and the first of Lubars creative hires has been announced) he also says, "I hate managers who come in with all the answers before the right questions have been asked. I used to feel guilty that I didn't have a plan, but that's how I've always done it. We're going to look at it, see what the culture is, see who the players are, what the issues are and we'll figure it out." Lubars does see room for increased integration on the media front. "I will meet with OMD and say I'd like a high-level OMD person to live with us so I have the same kind of relationship with a media person so that more guerrilla things can happen and changes can be made more easily. If you buy all the media ahead of time, how do you come back with something on the level of a BMW Films?"

His first creative appointment was ex-Euro RSCG CD Kara Goodrich, now occupying what is, for BBDO, the nontraditional role of CD, responsible for print creative development, reporting directly to Lubars.

Lubars' thinking on agency compensation is another key factor that could shift more than just Lions for the agency. "As we come up with these new ideas that have no relation to ads, there are probably other kinds of models and they should be based on results," says Lubars, citing a Fallon TV project for Purina -- an animated political satire featuring cats vs. dogs -- that was a departure from the current compensation structure and would have seen the agency in the role of co-executive producer with a piece of the point action.

Citi "Geek"
"If an agency invents and delivers a new approach for a client, and it goes well beyond what anyone imagined the agency -- or studio or whoever -- could contribute, then yes, it's somewhat unfair to work within a traditional fee structure," says Lubars. "This may sound optimistically naïve -- seeing as how agencies have been paid basically the same way for 100 years -- but I think you'll see clients start to become more flexible about payment structure. It's in a client's interest for his or her agency to break the mold creatively. Breaking the mold financially is a great motivator. I think in the near future, you'll start to see agencies paid not by commission, not by hours, but by success. I'd place a bet on my agency being successful on behalf of its clients any day -- who of my peers wouldn't?"

Robertson is well known for his views on the "attention economy" and the changes media consumption habits are bringing to the ad industry. "It's the biggest single issue we face and it's getting more extreme with every passing minute -- or 30 seconds," says Robertson. "All of which means the future lies in being able to create the most compelling commercial content -- commercial content is the business we are in. There is a lot of hard work that's gone into figuring out how consumers use media that can help you establish a context and a contact strategy. But unless you deliver some compelling content, it's still just a contact strategy."

According to Robertson, McLuhan had it wrong (or at least he wasn't programming his DVR, playing Doom 3 and watching six different kinds of wife-swapping show while he was trying to formulate his famous ism). "The message is the message," says Robertson. "There won't be enough money to buy consumers' attention, you'll have to earn it. The good news is you can. You just have to be more compelling -- not just more than the rest of the advertising in the category on the break, but more than any of the other options that a consumer has at a particular moment. It's an incredible opportunity if you can solve the problem -- and creativity is the only thing you can solve it with." With BMW Films the 1,000-horsepower example, Lubars is obviously of a like mind. "Seeking out (a message) is a whole different thing," says Lubars. "The insight on BMW was that if you can't reach an audience in the usual way, maybe we can do something so cool that they'll want to come and reach us. Imagine that."

Lubars says the agency's creative force is raring for the next thing, and Eric Silver agrees. "I've only been here nine months, but even in that time, the culture seems to be shifting a bit." Silver has even managed to create a more physically vibrant space within the agency, rescuing his agency zone from the sea of bland decor. As noted,the agency's appearance is not a small matter for Lubars, who has had the luxury of custom-making environments at BBDO West and Fallon. With a few years left on the lease on the midtown office, a major overhaul will have to wait, but an interim change is on the priority list. "We should have fun here," says Lubars. "It says something to people internally -- it says you are here to be creative, no matter what your discipline."

Says Silver: "There are a lot of smart people here who want to embrace what makes BBDO unique and, concurrently, are hungry to embrace whatever is next. It should be good."

(This article appears in the September 2004 issue of Creativity.)

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