Four Decades -- and Two Regrets

BBDO's Dusenberry Looks Back on Great Accounts, That Madonna Thing and the One That Got Away

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One of the true creative titans in the advertising business, Philip B. Dusenberry launched his career as a copywriter at BBDO in 1962 and helped grow the agency into a Madison Avenue giant.
Mr. Dusenberry's teams helped Ronald Reagan get re-elected.
Mr. Dusenberry's teams helped Ronald Reagan get re-elected.

The imaginative mind behind a number of well-loved campaigns from Pepsi's "The Choice of a New Generation" to General Electric Co.'s "We Bring Good Things to Life," Mr. Dusenberry, 71, rose through the ranks to become chairman of BBDO North America and vice chairman at BBDO Worldwide. Moreover, his work as a member of the famed Tuesday Team helped Ronald Reagan get re-elected in 1984.

Mr. Dusenberry's ability to engage and entertain reaches beyond advertising. The Brooklyn native's screenwriting credits include "The Natural," the classic baseball film starring Robert Redford. He later chronicled his life on Madison Avenue in the book "Then We Set His Hair on Fire: Insights and Accidents from a Hall-of-Fame Career in Advertising" (a reference to the frenzy that ensued over Michael Jackson's hair catching on fire while shooting a Pepsi spot).

Mr. Dusenberry was inducted into the Advertising Hall of Fame in 2002 and, on the eve of being inducted into the One Club's Hall of Fame this week, recognized for a lifetime of creative achievement, he reminisced with Advertising Age.

Advertising Age: At the time of the "Big Bang" that was the union of DDB Needham and BBDO in 1986, did you realize the move would change the entire ad industry so much?

Mr. Dusenberry: Nobody could anticipate that. It was brand new; no one knew how it was going to play out. It was a matter of waiting and watching, and, of course, it worked out fine in the long run.

Ad Age: From the perspective of someone who spent an entire career at a huge worldwide agency network, what do you think about the changing agency model that has seen the emergence of smaller and independent shops? Will there always be a need for holding companies?

Mr. Dusenberry: I don't know about that. [A holding company] certainly offers clients a bigger smorgasbord of services because, when you're dealing with, let's say, an Omnicom, you have several major agencies to choose from, many different below-the-line services to choose from, so you have a big selection. I think clients find that quite appealing.

Ad Age: You've done your share of Super Bowl advertising. Do you still get excited when you see Super Bowl spots?

Mr. Dusenberry: I do if the spots are good. So often in recent years, they've not been as good as they have been in the past. Why that is I'm not sure. I think it's because everyone is trying to outdo the other guy by trying to stand out and be noticed, and you often stub your own toe when you do that. It's not good to stand out for attention's sake.

Ad Age: What's the difference between the "real" Mad Men of Madison Avenue, and those who work with Don Draper at the fictional Sterling Cooper Advertising Agency on AMC?

Mr. Dusenberry: There was a time back in the '60s -- and I regret to say I'm old enough to remember it -- when there were similarities: the way people dressed, the way people drank, the way people acted. The similarities end there. There were a lot of hardworking people back in those days who weren't just knocking back martinis and trying to put the blast on their secretaries.

Mr. Dusenberry's teams also set Michael Jackson's hair on fire.

Ad Age: Our culture is so celebrity-obsessed nowadays. Your Pepsi work in particular was chock-full of celebs such as Michael Jackson, Michael J. Fox and Madonna. What was it like to work with all of those personalities?

Mr. Dusenberry: It was a great time. Those people you mentioned, with the exception of Madonna, were really fun people to work with. The Madonna episode was a mistake because of what happened; she came out with a video the same time our commercial broke and the video was blasphemous. We had to pull [the commercial] because we confused the American public about what we were all about. Michael J. Fox was a dreamboat to work with, Lionel Richie was great to work with. They were real pros and they did a great job.

Ad Age: In your professional career, which achievement are you proudest of?

Mr. Dusenberry: I would have to say the work I was involved with on Pepsi, on GE and on FedEx. Those were the accounts I was probably closest to and enjoyed the most.

Ad Age: You and Alan Pottasch, a creative genius at Pepsi who recently passed away, worked so well together. What was it like?

Mr. Dusenberry: We worked for 35 years slugging it out in the cola wars and he was a great guy -- totally dedicated to advertising and a superb product. He was the keeper of the creative flame at Pepsi, and he kept watch over the creative landscape.

Ad Age: Who is the smartest marketer you've ever worked with?

Mr. Dusenberry: A couple of names come to mind. Roger Enrico, head of PepsiCo. Jack Welch, who ran GE, also had great marketing instincts although that wasn't their primary job.

Ad Age: Who do you admire in the ad business today and what agencies are doing the best creative work?

Mr. Dusenberry: Outside of BBDO, I have a great admiration for Lee Clow at Chiat/Day, Steve Hayden at Ogilvy and Sal DeVito at DeVito/Verdi.

Ad Age: Is there anything you would have done differently with your career if you'd had the chance? Any regrets?

Mr. Dusenberry: The Madonna episode was a regret. The other is letting Steve Hayden get away to Ogilvy & Mather. He was one of our top guys; we tried to keep him, but he saw greener pastures at Ogilvy, and that's where he went. He's a great talent.

Ad Age: How 'bout them Yankees?

Mr. Dusenberry: Hey, what a disappointment, huh? We're all licking our wounds. I hope Joe Torre keeps his job -- it wasn't his fault.
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