WHAT DO YOU GET WHEN YOU CROSS A LIBERAL ARTS COLLEGE WITH THE CORLEONE FAMILY? ONE HELL OF AN AGENCY: SANN GETS CREATIVE WITH DUSENBERRY
In a business where a creative director's long list of agencies conquered is the norm, Ted Sann's 29-year tour-of-duty at BBDO New York is unique. Why does he stay? The company he keeps -- agency legends Allen Rosenshine, Bruce Crawford and, most important, his mentor Philip Dusenberry. The following conversation between Sann, BBDO New York's chief creative officer, and agency Chairman Dusenberry, whose contributions include everything from award-winning Pepsi-Cola campaigns to Ronald Reagan's highly acclaimed re-election campaign, talk about what makes great advertising and how it's learned.
Saan: I don't know, but for me mentor's too gentle a word. I mean, along the way people give you a hand, help you out, but mentoring sounds a little too nurturing to reflect life in an agency. When you start out, you're more like an apprentice, with all the Dickensian overtones. You get a dog for a boss, you're pretty much screwed until you can find someone to appreciate your ideas, help you grow. Some people learn faster than others, but somewhere along the way someone usually gives you a hand and you're on your way.
Who helped you out, and what was it like when you started out back before radio?
Dusenberry: Actually, I started in radio. I was a disc jockey and copywriter in one of those sleepy, down-South country towns, which is where I wrote my first piece of copy. Writing radio commercials was great training ground for me and gave me a foot in the door at BBDO.
As for the hand, that belonged to John Bergin, who was then one of the CDs at BBDO. He taught me to be tough -- tough on the work, tough on your group and most importantly, tough on yourself. You're tough in that way, Ted, so I guess it's become part of the heritage.
Saan: Well, I once said that BBDO was like a cross between a liberal arts college and the Corleone family. A sort of thoughtful toughness. When I started (I passed the now-defunct BBDO copy test in which you cut out three ads from a magazine and did your own versions), I was assigned to some guy who left for a shoot in Italy and never came back. Basically, I sat in my cubicle for three months, trembling, and waited to be fired.
Instead, Dick Joslin, who was a copy superviser running the Schaefer beer account, took pity on me and began giving me assignments and explained the basics (such as: what's a mechanical?), of which I had no idea. He was a great guy and an incredibly patient teacher. He taught me that it wasn't uncool to actually care about your work.
After that, Charlie Miesmer and I and a few others sort of operated as guerrillas; we were so far down on anybody's organization scale that nobody noticed us . We'd go from group to group trying to find good things to work on, managing to do good work in isolated pockets.
Then you showed up and put some order into the chaos and actually made doing good work a policy instead of an exception. What was it like coming back into BBDO when you did?
Dusenberry: The year was 1977, and BBDO was a huge, research-driven, account-driven place. Everyone operated like your local dry cleaner: in by 9, out by 5. But sitting there on our client roster were some of the really great accounts, like Pepsi and Gillette. It gave us the opportunity to do some really big-time creative work.
But change, especially in a big shop, is hard. It comes slowly, like turning the proverbial QE2 around in the Hudson. Fortunately, we had some great young creatives who were anxious to get with the program, anxious to shine. All they needed was someone to show them some direction, someone who could make them believe that becoming a great creative shop wasn't just an empty promise but could be something real. In my first address to the creative department, I said, 'Believe me, it's more fun to be great than to be adequate.' It took.
Saan: For me it was: here was somebody who cared more about the work than anything else. Not making meetings, not keeping account guys happy, giving the clients ideas instead of what they asked for.
Suddenly we were winning more arguments and pitches than we were losing, and a good idea really got a chance to shine. Most importantly, the work kept getting better and better.
Before you came along, I wasn't too crazy about having anyone comment on my work. But from the beginning I respected your ability to see what would work or what wouldn't and your absolute disdain for bad ideas and delight in good ones. You never criticized style or method or format. It was simply: it's good or it's not. That focus has become part of our m.o.. Do it different, do it any way you want, but it'd damn well better be good. And , yes, we know good.
Dusenberry: But to get back to the mentoring thing, one of the core concepts we've passed to each other is the notion of leading by example. That's so important. I've never understood the delegator theory of "you go do this and I'll see you later." I know there are some agencies that subscribe to that clean-desk philosophy. But to me, a strong creative leader is more like a second lieutenant down in the trenches with the troops, attacking the problem with them and not just commanding from some distant, high perch. It's the way great work at BBDO usually comes about, right?
Saan: Making ads is a totally concrete experience. You can't step too far away from the process and still have any meaningful input. You have to be there when the ideas are being formulated, when they're being presented, all the way down the line.
That's why I've always had trouble with the concept of a worldwide creative director. It's hard enough to give meaningful direction to a group down the hall. A creative director has to be about the work and nothing else. Leave the bullshit for whoever else wants to do it.
Dusenberry: This is especially important for young kids in the business, because it sets a certain tone and standard that will impact the rest of their careers. Besides, doing it has always been more fun than just talking about it.
Saan: Also, mentoring is a two-way street. You try to teach someone what you've learned from experience, and they teach you fresh ways to look at things. If you only approach it from your own point of view, then it's really not fruitful.
Dusenberry: That's part of good creative direction: giving creative a fairly precise road to travel but letting them know there are lots of side roads to take if that will help solve the problem.
Saan: I think I've learned an enormous amount from you over the years. Without sounding like a total brown-nose, I'd like to thank you. So anyway, enough about you. What about me? Have you learned anything at all from me?