Phil Dusenberry Dies; Colleagues Mourn a 'Legend'

Former BBDO Creative Pioneered Celebs in Ads and Helped Make Pepsi a Pop-Culture Icon

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NEW YORK ( -- Phil Dusenberry, the famed BBDO creative known for campaigns such as GE's "We Bring Good Things to Life" and Pepsi's "The Choice of a New Generation," died at his Manhattan home Saturday, Dec. 29, after a battle with lung cancer. He was 71 years old.

The son of a cab driver, Philip B. Dusenberry attended Emory & Henry College, Virginia, on an athletic scholarship. He left after the athletic program was canceled and dabbled in radio before landing at BBDO in 1962, where he launched a career as a creative.

Phil Dusenberry
Phil Dusenberry
After his initial seven-year stint as a copywriter, Mr. Dusenberry left BBDO to start his own shop, Dusenberry Ruriani & Kornhauser. The business didn't take off with the gusto he had hoped, and Mr. Dusenberry rejoined BBDO in 1977 as an associate creative director. Within the next decade, he was promoted to chairman-chief creative officer of the network's flagship New York office. He was also named vice chairman of BBDO Worldwide and later chairman of BBDO North America, a role he retained until his 2002 retirement from the Omnicom Group agency.

'A gentleman in every respect'
"He was a great person to work for, to work with, and a great friend," recalled Ted Sann, former chairman and chief creative officer at BBDO, New York. "It's really a loss to everybody who knew him, and to the business."

Allen Rosenshine, former chairman-CEO, BBDO Worldwide, remembers Mr. Dusenberry as a consummate gentleman. "He rarely if ever raised his voice in anger, and you never heard a profanity coming from his lips," he said. "Phil was always well-groomed and immaculately dressed. He was a gentleman in every respect.

"Although he was a hard taskmaster in getting the creative product to be as good as it could be, he always shared credit with the people who did the work, and he always celebrated the success of the work," added Mr. Rosenshine. "Being his partner was one of the things I really loved most about being in the business."

Selling with celebrities
With his ability to reel in the most famous names of the day -- Michael J. Fox, Madonna and Michael Jackson among them -- for his clients' ads, Mr. Dusenberry helped set the trend for marketers' inking of lucrative celebrity-endorsement deals. "He pioneered the use of celebrities not just for the sake of having a celebrity, but choosing a celebrity that had relevance ... and that had some emotional attachment to the brand, and was believable as a user of a brand," Mr. Rosenshine said.

He's also credited with changing the creative direction of the agency behemoth, and under his leadership, BBDO was named "Agency of the Year" numerous times by trade publications. Mr. Dusenberry also was known for the role he played on the famed Tuesday Team, whose "Morning in America" commercials helped Ronald Reagan get re-elected in 1984.

Mr. Dusenberry -- named by Advertising Age as one of the century's top 100 advertising people -- published a memoir in 2005: "One Great Insight Is Worth A Thousand Good Ideas." Among the numerous awards and achievements earned over a career spanning five decades, he was a 2003 American Advertising Federation Hall of Fame inductee and in 2007 was inducted into The One Club's Hall of Fame.

Putting Pepsi in popular culture
In an October interview with Ad Age on the eve of his One Club induction, he reminisced about his days on Madison Avenue, saying he was proudest of his work for Pepsi, GE and FedEx. "Those were the accounts I was probably closest to and enjoyed the most."

"Working with Phil produced some of the most enjoyable and rewarding moments in my years at PepsiCo," said Roger Enrico, former chairman-CEO of PepsiCo. "The advertising he did for our brands helped make them icons of popular culture and added significantly to the growth of the PepsiCo enterprise. He was a great ad man and a dear friend."

Until the end, Mr. Dusenberry remained a believer in the holding-company model, citing the "smorgasbord of services" that large marketing organizations can offer as a feature of the business that many clients will always find appealing over smaller, independent shops.

Making 'The Natural'; becoming a legend
His talents ranged far beyond advertising, too. The Brooklyn native and lifelong Yankee fan's screenwriting credits include "The Natural," the classic baseball film starring Robert Redford. His 18-minute documentary film, "Final Journey" became a permanent addition to the Reagan Presidential Library.

"Our industry has lost a legend. BBDO has lost an inspiration. And many of us have lost a friend," said Andrew Robertson, president-CEO, BBDO Worldwide, in a statement. "Those of us who were lucky enough to work with him knew he always wanted more time to make it better. Sadly, he didn't get it this time."

Mr. Dusenberry is survived by wife, Susan; stepson, Ben Procter; daughter-in-law, Ilana Sparrow; brother Harry, and his wife Marcy; brother Joseph; sister, Jean Driscoll, and her husband, Jack; and a large extended family.

A wake will be held Thursday, Jan. 3, from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m., and Friday, Jan. 4, from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the Frank E. Campbell Funeral Home, 1076 Madison Avenue at 81st Street in Manhattan. A funeral Mass will be held Saturday, Jan. 5, at 1 p.m. at St. Ignatius Loyola, at 980 Park Avenue at 84th Street in Manhattan.

Donations may be made in Mr. Dusenberry's name to the Coalition for the Homeless, 129 Fulton St., New York, NY, 10038, or the St. Jude Children's Cancer Research Hospital, 501 St. Jude Place, Memphis, TN, 38105.

Share your memories and thoughts about Phil Dusenberry in comments on this story or by writing to [email protected]

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