Darryl Willis, Reluctant Star of BP's Latest Commercials, Talks to Ad Age

Is Embattled Oil Giant's Latest Spot a Brilliant PR Ploy or Earnest Face of Compassion?

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- You've seen him in those commercials for BP. An unassuming man wearing an orange polo and wire-frame glasses approaches the camera as he walks along a generic dock and says, "I'm Darryl Willis. I oversee BP's claims process on the Gulf Coast. BP has got to make things right, and that's why we're here."

The Everyman conceit is unmistakable, especially as he ends the spot saying, "I was born and raised in Louisiana. I volunteered for this assignment, because this is my home."

Who is Darryl Willis? He is, in fact, VP-resources for BP, and he is based in Houston. But he did volunteer to manage the claims process for the embattled oil concern, and he did grow up in New Orleans, and despite taking a few hits from CNN's Wolf Blitzer on Tuesday, some say he is a far more effective spokesman for the oil company than CEO Tony Hayward, who was chided recently for attending a boat race off the southern coast of England as he watched from his $270,000, 50-foot yacht "Bob."

Mr. Willis has been setting up and overseeing BP's claims offices in the affected Gulf Coast states -- a juxtaposition that some commentors on black-focused blogs said has undertones of racial perfidy. Nonetheless, Mr. Willis, a married father of two children, has become the most visible face of BP. Ad Age spoke to Mr. Willis via phone as he was en route from Florida to New Orleans.

Ad Age: How is the cleanup going?

Darryl Willis: It's going well. But as you can imagine the cleanup is complex. We have oil over such a large area of the Gulf of Mexico, and the tarballs come in to shore, but they go out and then they come back in again, and that makes it complicated.

Ad Age: The $20 billion fund that BP has set aside will be put into escrow and controlled by an independent commission headed by Kenneth Feinberg. How will that affect payment?

Mr. Willis: I don't know if it's been physically been put into escrow yet. Mr. Feinberg said it's being handled. But we're going to continue paying people. People who have been impacted by this will face a seamless transition. The checks will be signed through [Mr. Feinberg's] organization. Right now, it's BP signing the checks.

Ad Age: How many checks have you cut and how much have you paid?

Mr. Willis: We've cut about 39,000 checks, and paid out $126 million. We paid our first claim on the fourth of May.

Ad Age: In the TV ad, you say you volunteered for this job. How did that happen?

Mr. Willis: Back in late April, I got a call, it was a Tuesday, I'll never forget it. They wanted to see if I was able to go over to the site and help with the response. I started looking at some of the initial data, who was affected. I was calling the claims line myself to make sure I was getting someone on the phone. Everyone was focused on the cleaning up the spill, but no one was actually monitoring the claims process. I guess what solidified it for me was when the company got a call from Washington, and they wanted to hear about the claims process. They sent me.

Ad Age: They also made a commercial starring you.

Mr. Willis: I had no idea about the commercial. I envisioned myself being in the back office punching numbers. I didn't see myself in a commercial. That was a new step. When I got the call asking if I would help out and do the spot, I thought it would be a typical BP commercial, say something about the claims process.

Ad Age: Are you the new face of BP?

Mr. Willis: I'm happy to be the face of BP, in respect to this response. But I'm more honored to be part of the Gulf Coast -- it's a privilege to have the role that I have.

Ad Age: Some say your being front and center is just a clever PR move on the part of BP. What do you say?

Mr. Willis: I would say that I'm doing this because I love my job and the community I grew up in. I've spent lots of time across the Gulf Coast. I care about how people are treated through this process. I'm not doing it to be part of any PR stunt.

Ad Age: You're from New Orleans. Do you still have family there?

Mr. Willis: Yes. I have lots of cousins. Both my parents passed away, and my brother. But I have a big extended family in New Orleans and Louisiana.

Ad Age: What do they think about this disaster?

Mr. Willis: A few folks in my family work in oil and gas, lots of people in my family also fish, so they are sort of devastated by what's happened. At the same time, they said to me, "We're glad you're on this, but get it cleaned up. We have your phone number. We'll call you!" And they're not joking.

Ad Age: What did you think of Tony Hayward attending the boat race last week?

Mr. Willis: Tony's been in this response from the very beginning, he's been working his heart out. My understanding was he was at home spending some time with his son. That's all I know about it.

Ad Age: Do you have kids?

Mr. Willis: Yes. I'm married, and I have two kids back in Houston. In the past two months, I've been back there for a total of five days. I miss them a lot, but I talk to them almost every day. They always ask, "How much longer are you going to be out there?" My answer is, "I don't know."

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