The new creative director of the most prestigious big advertising agency in America is yelling into the telephone, making a case for one of his ads. No, not yelling. Keening is more like it, like a Beat poet who has somehow been trapped for years in button-downs and khakis, pretending to be an executive, and has suddenly been released. He didn’t plan this. He had called planning to talk about new media and old media and how half of America will have broadband by 2006 (“That’s a fact, not some futuristic bullshit”) and how the ad agencies that didn’t get it risked “getting flushed down the twentieth-century toilet.” But somehow, the big theory has fallen by the wayside and we have gotten to talking about a commercial by Fallon, the Minneapolis agency Lubars has just come from. It stars a guy wearing a sweat-stained undershirt under his torn, checkered Pendleton, sitting in a Barcalounger. The spot is supposed to promote Citibank’s identity-protection program; the guy in the Barcalounger has had his identity stolen. He is sprawled on the Barcalounger, holding a beer, but his voice is that of a Long Island teen queen who just spent $1,500 of his money on a leather bustier. But the commercial is not really about identity theft. It is about the guy on the Barcalounger. Advertising’s great comic characters—Wendy’s Clara Peller or FedEx’s fast-talking John Moschitta—are some of the great grotesques of the century. And the guy in the Barcalounger is one of the great grotesques of advertising, a big belch of a comic character. Like all great funny commercials, it’s counterintuitive. It shows a person who’s ugly, funny, and dumb, whose identity (like most of ours) is not really even worth stealing, and asks the viewer to identify with him.
So now David Lubars is trying to dissect how it is that a commercial can do that, and what comes out is, This is gumbo America. “It’s not just telling the truth about the product,” Lubars explains, “but showing an understanding of how things really are, not some glossed-up whatever.”
The reason that David Lubars found himself answering questions about truth and “the way things really are” is that in June, BBDO North America—an agency that Michael Patti, himself a former BBDOer and now creative director of Y&R, calls “the most American of ad agencies”—announced that at the end of the summer, Lubars would take over as BBDO’s creative director and chairman. Pepsi, General Electric, FedEx: BBDO’s client roster is a list of many of the great prestige accounts in the ad world, big advertisers with a history of high-profile, award-winning commercials.
“When I see you calling Dusenberry or Miesmer, I wonder where you’re going. They don’t know about this stuff. This is what I’m coming to teach them.”
Lubars is taking the job at a moment when advertising is in the midst of one of its periodic creative perturbations. Just as years ago advertisers realized that banging audiences over and over with a catchy tagline (“Ring Around the Collar”—the famous BBDO campaign for Wisk—never brought the detergent anywhere near its main competitor, Tide), ad agencies are currently overwhelmed with the suspicion that the language of contemporary ads—the catchy tagline, the celebrity put in a funny situation, the twist ending, even the TV commercial itself—doesn’t work like it used to. Ad-agency executives saw numbers that claimed to show that young beer-and-car-buying men were deserting television for the pleasures of PlayStation and online porn. They looked at Google, a company that became the star of the Internet while selling “ads” that consisted of nothing but three lines of text. They all got TiVo, and started talking about how they could TiVo the shows and TiVo past the commercials. And they sighed over the teenage kids, who just didn’t seem to care anymore about perfectly good, clever, glossy TV commercials. “How am I supposed to communicate with someone who is used to writing ‘I wnt2cu’?” asks noted adman Jerry Della Femina.
And indeed, if this is a transformative moment in advertising, arguably nobody has more at risk than BBDO. The history of BBDO is more or less the history of American advertising. The product of a 1928 merger between the George Batten agency and Barton, Durstine & Osborn, BBDO—as with USX, the letters technically no longer stand for anything at all, but simply refer in a stylized way to a storied history—was one of the first big agency to be located on Madison Avenue, and one of the few big agencies to survive not only the “Ring Around the Collar” age of sledgehammer advertising but all the creative upheavals that came before and after. Longtime BBDO chairman Phil Dusenberry came up with “We bring good things to life” and the Pepsi Generation, the campaign that was the first to tell us not only what we should want but who we should want to be.
Dusenberry retired in 2002, and suddenly it was pretty evident that BBDO’s work for its biggest clients was feeling old again. The Pepsi ads that used to sell youth were selling nostalgia. The new generation—today’s new generation, not the “New Generation” of 1970-something—didn’t need to see Britney Spears putting on period outfits to promote Pepsi. Since when was Pepsi about nostalgia? They didn’t get the joke when they saw a middle-aged Peter Fonda rocking out to “Born to Be Wild.” Or, worse, and more likely, they didn’t recognize Peter Fonda. Dusenberry stood both for a style of doing business and a style of making commercials. He was neatly pressed, conservative (Dusenberry had worked on Reagan’s reelection campaign). For public consumption, BBDO’s motto—who has a motto anymore?—was “The work, the work, the work.” Inside, though, Dusenberry was credited with less lofty slogans: “If you don’t come in on Sunday, don’t bother to come in on Monday.” Or, “BBDO: bring it back and do it over.” Under Dusenberry, BBDO had more polished, glossier commercials, more big-name stars (Britney Spears, Derek Jeter, Cindy Crawford) than anybody else. It bought more ads during the Super Bowl. (Advertising on the Super Bowl “says you’ve arrived,” Dusenberry and his longtime lieutenant, Ted Sann, wrote in the introduction to a coffee-table book about Super Bowl commercials.)
Dusenberry left BBDO’s creative department in Sann’s hands. Cultured, reserved, one of the few intellectuals in the ad business, Sann was a talented admaker who’d been instrumental in twenty years of Pepsi advertising. He was also one of the last true believers in the celebrity-driven commercial. Sann lasted two years. This May, Allen Rosenshine, the longtime chief executive of BBDO Worldwide (the international company that owns BBDO North America), stepped aside for Andrew Robertson, a 43-year-old Englishman with a yen for big-think theory and a habit of firing off masses of statistics about the evolving State of the Media. The first thing that Robertson did was fire Ted Sann, an event that was greeted by the business press with a combination of shock and bloodlust.