Reflections on an Advertising Natural

Published on .

You could well describe Phil Dusenberry as opinionated, stubborn, intolerant, demanding, and driven. In some people, such qualities might be nothing to celebrate. But for others, they can be hallmarks of a great leader. And Phil Dusenberry was indeed one of the truly great creative leaders in the history of advertising.

Phil didn't just have opinions. He always knew what was good, bad, or indifferent creative work. He had an unerring instinct for the insight that elevates even a good advertising idea to an emotional and human experience that would make a product relevant to what consumers thought and felt. He saw it as his mission to turn a product into a part of people's lives—certainly the defining characteristic of a successful brand.

Phil was very stubborn and intolerant. He couldn't abide any creative compromise that would lessen the impact of the insight that drove a campaign. He'd battle with clients and agency people alike over sometimes seemingly small issues—a few words here or there, or a single scene among many—because he fervently believed that everything counted. It didn't matter who you were. When Michael Jackson refused to remove his sunglasses while filming the Pepsi campaign, Phil told him, "The glasses come off or we're outta here." The glasses came off.

Phil was demanding and driven—a requirement for a perfectionist. Someone at BBDO once quipped that with Phil running creative, the agency initials stood for "bring it back and do it over." But as much as it has become a cliché, it is nonetheless true that Phil pushed no one harder than he drove himself.

Yet these characteristics alone would not necessarily have resulted in Phil's success. A piece of advice once given to me perfectly summarized a critical human component of our business—at the end of the day, you won't succeed if the people around you don't want you to. We all worked with and for Phil because we wanted to.

Even when Phil argued with you or turned down your work, you never believed there was any ego or motive other than his passion for doing better. He made us care more about everything we did because he cared more. He made us laugh with a sharp sense of humor that he willingly and often aimed at himself. He made it BBDO's business to celebrate every award, every sales or share increase, every brand-building success. Phil made it a point to share the credit with everyone who contributed, not only from creative but also from research, planning, account management, and yes, even media. And he made it his continuous commitment to champion the careers of the creative people who, as he always acknowledged, did the work.

And those are the two words—the work—on which Phil always focused all his talent and energy. The work was what consumed him, excited him, enthralled him, and sometimes bedeviled him. When the inevitable politics of the business undercut a major campaign and threatened his ability to protect it, Phil, many more times than once, stormed into my office to resign, always with the same preface—"I can't take this crap any more." But happily for us, he could and did.

The work became the clarion call for the agency and our stated reason for being. He established "The Work, The Work, The Work" as the literal motto by which we would judge ourselves and promote the agency to clients and prospects. While all disciplines other than creative made essential contributions, their value was measured by their impact on the work. It wasn't our process or how we organized or our networking capabilities or any other algorithm by which we served clients as much as the creative product that became, under Phil's guidance, the defining identity of the agency and the critical differentiation between BBDO and our competitors.

And what brilliant work it was! The high entertainment of "mini-movies" for Pepsi; the humanizing of a corporate monolith by bringing "good things to life" for GE; the fierce competitiveness of being "everywhere you want to be" for Visa; the business-building assurance to business people that they could "Relax, it's FedEx" and the hilarious moments when the answer to hunger was to "grab a Snickers"; the star-studded parodies that raised a city's spirit with the hopes and dreams of "The New York Miracle" just after 9/11; and so much more for so many others that delivered the rationality and insight of strategy with the creativity that reached minds and hearts with logic and emotion. Phil never accepted what has today become too often the case in advertising–difference for its own sake, producing advertising without any understandable message. For him, no matter how the creative might titillate, if it didn't make sense, it didn't make it.

It was work that turned BBDO into arguably the most creative global network by raising the New York headquarters to new levels of creativity, which in turn made our network an attractive and desired partner for other creative agencies internationally and set the standard that BBDO agencies around the world sought to match in their own markets. So while Phil worked predominantly in New York, the work produced there had a profound impact on BBDO everywhere.

The only thing Phil ever feared was losing. He hated with a passion to lose an account or a new business pitch. He took it hard—viscerally and personally—which no doubt explains why it didn't happen too often. And the only thing I have to forgive him for is the work Phil produced for President Reagan. As a lifelong Democrat, I certainly didn't appreciate how effective it was.

I've written here about the great things Phil did for BBDO. But his place in the Creative Hall of Fame surely recognizes that his work lifted our entire industry. I think advertising, no matter how it changes in response to globalization and new technologies, will always need a big dose of Dusenberry.

To discuss this article, visit the Creativity Forums.
Most Popular
In this article: