MANAGEMENT TRANSITION - The natural: Dusenberry leaves imprint on ad world

By Published on .

It wasn't a tough choice, really, although now he looks back fondly and laughs.

It was 1962, and Philip B. Dusenberry was offered a job as a junior copywriter at the famous Batten Barton Durstine & Osborn advertising agency. But that meant he had to leave his gig as a radio disk jockey in Huntington, Long Island, where he supplemented a meager income by serving as the in-store announcer at a branch of of a now-defunct chain department store.

"I would say things like, `Ladies, for the next 15 minutes at the hosiery bar ... ,' " Mr. Dusenberry recalled. "So when I told the boss of the store I was leaving, he said, `Gee, that's too bad because we were thinking about making you the voice of all our stores!' "

the right choice

He stopped and laughed, almost knocking a strand loose from his famously coifed hair.

"I mean, wow, all the stores," he said, still chuckling. "But I think I made the right choice."

Indeed he did.

Later this month, Mr. Dusenberry, 65, will close the door to his expansive midtown Manhattan office at BBDO for the last time and shutter 40 years in the industry. After contemplating retirement on numerous occasions, he felt it was time to step away.

Named two years ago as one of Advertising Age's 100 most influential advertising figures of the last century, Mr. Dusenberry's list of awards requires its own pied-a-terre. He has won multiple Cannes Lions, Clios, One Show Pencils, national and regional ADDY's, an ANDY for his work on Pepsi, an IBA award from the Hollywood Radio and Television Society and several Advertising Age Best awards.

Mr. Dusenberry's duties will be assumed by Andrew Robertson, president-CEO of BBDO North America, and Ted Sann, chief creative officer BBDO North America. In retiring, Mr. Dusenberry leaves behind a legacy of creative leadership matched by few, and leaves a void within the agency and the industry.

Just weeks before Foote, Cone & Belding Worldwide chairman Brendan Ryan excoriated the profession at the American Association of Advertising Agencies convention for an industrywide lack of respect in March, Four A's President-CEO O. Burtch Drake said of Mr. Dusenberry: "Phil elevated the whole profession by making people feel proud to be in it."

Born the eldest of a family of six children, Mr. Dusenberry is the son of a Brooklyn cab driver. He grew up in Flatbush and attended high school with Woody Allen, with whom he would later work on the acclaimed "New York Miracle" spots that ran last year after Sept. 11.

radio days

An accomplished baseball player, Mr. Dusenberry earned a scholarship to Emory & Henry College in southern Virginia. While there, the school dropped its athletic assistance program and Mr. Dusenberry turned to radio, becoming a disk jockey for a small station in Abingdon, Va., before moving to Long Island for a station there.

When Mr. Dusenberry joined BBDO as a $6,500-a-year copywriter, he worked on both Pepsi-Cola Co. and Chrysler Corp.'s Dodge accounts. But not before he began by rewriting in-flight announcements for Air France. It was a job, he says, that gave him perspective and made him hungry for more.

"Not everybody can start out working on the major accounts, and few understand that," he said.

But it wasn't long before he was working on the major accounts and making a name for himself. Mr. Dusenberry worked at BBDO for seven years before leaving to start his own shop, an experience that left him more bewildered and bemused than anything.

"It was fun, and it was an interesting sort of concept of freedom," he said, "but I wasn't too crazy about my new clients and I wasn't too crazy about my new partners."

After Mr. Dusenberry teamed with Roger Towne to co-write the screenplay to Bernard Malamud's novel "The Natural"- considered one of the best sports movies of all time-he was lured back to BBDO in 1977 to run the Pepsi business.

At the time, BBDO was a respected, but mechanical shop. When Mr. Dusenberry returned, he launched the agency into a creative renaissance. BBDO suddenly became envied. Mr. Dusenberry didn't just set the tone for an agency, he raised the bar for an industry.

more than `hawking'

"When you think back to where we were, the talking heads and hard-hitting kind of things, we've evolved into an entertainment mode," he said. " The industry has caught on to that. This is nothing new. As a result, the work is getting better and better and the quality is getting better. But it's getting better in an environment of tremendous clutter. You not only have to be good, but you have to be better than the next guy to get through that melange of sound and pictures."

"The great thing about Dusenberry is, he's an unbelievable perfectionist. So if you work for Phil, you get better," said Dick Johnson, who retired last June as chairman-chief creative officer of BBDO's Troy, Mich., office after a decade there in his third stint at the agency. "BBDO's reel went from OK back in the `70s to world-class under Dusenberry."

Mostly, that was done with his watershed work on blue-chip accounts, including Pepsi and two spots with pop singer Michael Jackson in 1984.

When then-Pepsi marketing chief Alan Pottasch and CEO Roger Enrico learned they could get Mr. Jackson, Mr. Dusenberry immediately set out on a campaign to take advantage of Mr. Jackson's then-white-hot status.

Mr. Dusenberry said he and his creative team presented Mr. Jackson with storyboards and some music, which the singer said he liked. A week before the shoot, sitting in the Jackson family home in Encino, Calif., Mr. Jackson said he had three problems.

"First he said he didn't like the storyboards. He's telling us this eight weeks after he signed off on them. But, I figured, we can deal with that," Mr. Dusenberry recalled, starting to laugh a bit as he tells the story. "Then," he said, imitating Mr. Jackson's distinctive voice, "Michael says, `I don't like the music tracks.' Again I'm thinking, well, we can deal with this, too."

Then Mr. Jackson floored Mr. Dusenberry and the Pepsi contingent with his third problem.


"Michael then looks at us and says there's one more thing," Mr. Dusenberry recalled. "He says, `You can't show my face in the commercials.' I was like, `Excuse me?' And Michael said again, `You can't show my face in the commercials. I don't like to see my face on television.' If I tell you the room was dead silent, it wouldn't do it justice."

Fortunately, Mr. Jackson's father, Joe Jackson-who at the time was still somewhat of an authority figure in the singer's life-intervened.

"The rest, as they say, is history," Mr. Dusenberry said. "When Michael said he didn't like the tracks, he then suggested we use `Billie Jean' as the music, which at the time was the No.1 song in the country."

Still, BBDO and Pepsi hadn't cleared every hurdle. Mr. Johnson recalled that during the shoot, Mr. Jackson refused to remove his signature sunglasses. Mr. Dusenberry told the star the marketer was paying $12 million to see his face. When Michael again refused, Mr. Dusenberry told the crew the shoot was canceled and started to close the set. Mr. Jackson then conceded.

"He's a tough son of a bitch, but he's honorable," BBDO's Mr. Johnson said of Mr. Dusenberry. "There's just greatness in him and he has unbelievable energy."

While the experience had its hairy moments-including an infamous accident on the last take of the last day of shooting in which Mr. Jackson's hair caught on fire-it didn't sour Mr. Dusenberry or Mr. Enrico one bit.

"Working with Phil produced some of the most enjoyable and rewarding moments in my years at PepsiCo," said former Chairman-CEO Mr. Enrico.

Mr. Dusenberry introduced the theme line of "The choice of a new generation" for Pepsi, but said he was only continuing what the marketer had started. "Pepsi was really at the forefront of lifestyle advertising," Mr. Dusenberry said. "The whole idea of exalting the user rather than sanctifying the product was revolutionary for its time."

good things

It wasn't the first time, or the last, that Mr. Dusenberry coined a memorable phrase. He was also responsible for General Electric Co.'s "We bring good things to life," HBO's "It's not TV. It's HBO" and Visa's "It's everywhere you want to be."

The year 1984 was not only good for Pepsi, but for presidents. Mr. Dusenberry teamed with Ken Roman and Hal Riney, then of Ogilvy & Mather; Edward Ney of Young & Rubicam; and Jim Weller and Ron Travisano of Della Femina, Travisano & Partners to form the "Tuesday Team" for President Ronald Reagan's re-election campaign.

Guided by Reagan staff members Roger Ailes, now CEO of News Corp.'s Fox News Channel, and Michael Deaver, the Tuesday Team produced a memorable commercial called "Morning in America."

"Phil was superb from the very beginning," said Mr. Deaver, now with Edelman Worldwide in Washington, D.C., who was responsible for putting together the ad team for the `84 re-election campaign. "Phil was a dream to work with and he not only was part of the team that did `Morning in America,' but he also did the convention vignette which, I think, is still one of the great political films ever done."

There will be no let-up, of course. Retirement according to Webster's Dictionary is something completely different from retirement according to Dusenberry. Despite getting closer to the actual date of departure, Mr. Dusenberry has kept an active role in client management. He will also work with the Ad Council and was recently named to the board of directors of former New York Mayor Rudolph Guiliani's Twin Towers Fund.

And he looks back fondly at everything that came after his decision to forgo an in-store announcing career for the world of advertising.

"It's been a fabulous experience," Mr. Dusenberry said, "and a great ride."

contributing: jean halliday

Fast Facts

Name: Phil Dusenberry, chairman, BBDO North America

Age: 65

Now: Retiring later this month after 33 years at BBDO and 40 years in the advertising industry

Quotable: "It's been a fabulous experience and a great ride."

Most Popular
In this article: