Player Profile: Ryan sells advertising ideas through wry but savvy style

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Even dennis ryan's resume is funny. Not hysterical, but it reflects the unorthodox humor that marks his "Talking Garlic" Miracle Whip ads and helped make "I love you, man" part of the American vernacular.

Consider this resume entry for the J. Walter Thompson USA executive creative director, referring to his role in leading Anheuser-Busch's "Why ask why?" effort for Bud Dry. "Rollout a huge success, however sales falter as too many consumers actually do ask `Why?"'

His 13 years of experience on Budweiser, Bud Light and other Anheuser-Busch brand iterations as group creative director at DDB Worldwide, Chicago, have played a formative role in Mr. Ryan's career. Now, he-and a team of 15 creatives at JWT Chicago-are using that experience as they try to revive rival Miller Brewing Co.'s Miller Genuine Draft.

The resulting campaign that broke in mid-January relies on humor rather than the hip music and cool characters employed by Wieden & Kennedy, Portland, Ore., the former agency for Miller Brewing Co.'s faltering No. 2 brand.

CASUAL, DETERMINED

The humor should come as no surprise for a man whose resume also refers to introducing "beer drinkers to the concept of `born on dating' to widespread apathy."

Such a seemingly casual-yet determined-approach marks the 36-year-old Mr. Ryan's philosophy about his vocation. "We're not solving pancreatic cancer. We're selling products. What we should do is add a sense of humor," he says. "We take our jobs dead seriously, but we have fun."

In an industry where egos rule, Mr. Ryan is the first to volunteer he wasn't the genesis behind some of the more memorable campaigns he championed. "Window dressing-that's what I bring to the party," he says.

As global creative director on Frito-Lay at DDB, for example, he says he merely sold the concept of using "Seinfeld" star Jason Alexander in Rold Gold ads to the client. While riding on an exercise bike, he pitched to August Busch IV the very expensive idea of having Clydesdales kick a field goal.

"My job is as an editor," he says. "Punching up a joke is different than sitting with a blank piece of paper and coming up with it."

Rather than telling his creatives an idea they've dreamed up doesn't work-and then coming up with a different one himself-Mr. Ryan encourages writers to stretch themselves, says Bob Merlotti, JWT's group creative director whom Mr. Ryan brought over from DDB.

With his valedictorian vocabulary and stand-up comedian wit, Mr. Ryan credits his upbringing in Hershey, Pa.-and jobs like waiting tables, grinding meat, and counseling 3- and 6-year-old summer campers-with his understanding of what turns shoppers into consumers.

Mr. Ryan didn't grow up wanting to be an ad man, and only gave the agency world a shot once he read David Ogilvy's "Ogilvy on Advertising" after graduating from the University of Notre Dame with a degree in art and English in 1984. His first job was at Needham Harper & Steers, forerunner to DDB, where he started off as a copywriter on Michelob Light.

"It was a natural with my two highly unsaleable majors and my short attention span," he cracks.

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