BBDO Leaders Reflect on a Decade at the Top

Andrew Robertson and David Lubars on partnership, change—and that merger

As wooing goes, Andrew Robertson’s efforts to seal the deal with David Lubars was not particularly auspicious. In 2004, the newly named BBDO global chief stepped up his efforts to recruit the Fallon chief creative officer, but not only did Roberston show up late for lunch, he came without wallet or phone, sticking Lubars with the bill as well as a used-up phone battery. Not easily put off, Lubars signed up with Robertson and began a working relationship that has seen the transformation of BBDO into a world player with an expanding global client roster and a creative reputation matching that profile. BBDO has been saluted as the most creative network eight years in a row by the Gunn Report and is a five-time winner as Cannes Network of the Year. At this year’s Clio Awards, BBDO won 59 prizes, including a Hall of Fame Award and a Grand Clio. Robertson and Lubars, now BBDO’s global CCO, spoke with Adweek about the ups and downs of their decade together and lessons learned.

Adweek: How difficult was it to change BBDO’s culture?
Robertson: It’s always hard, but we were clear in what we were doing. The focus is on the [BBDO mantra]: “The Work. The Work. The Work.” We articulated three core pillars: We would secure an unfair share of exceptional talent and leverage them as widely as we could across brands, communication forms, cultures and countries. Then we had to get offices to realize the full value of being part of a network and use network contacts, talent, knowledge, experience and ideas to build local as well as international business. Those foundations are fixed; everything else can and will change from day to day, place to place.

Lubars: It’s not an assembly line here. Our biggest mandate is to work like a global boutique. Obviously, there’s discipline and rigor, but a lot of it is a purposeful chaos and eventually magic happens. Sometimes people come here and it takes a while to get used to it because it’s not ordered. One of the things Andrew and I are best at is we’re very self-aware of the limits of our competencies. It’s good to know what you’re not good at. We have extraordinary people and we’re humbled to have them.

Adweek: What was it like shaking up BBDO’s traditional creative operations?
Lubars: We had a vision of what the future might look like. We mapped it out and it became a place where the cement never hardens. There are always new ideas—it’s media agnostic. It wasn’t even more specific than that; it was just a feeling that something new could happen. I relate to fast, nimble, flat. The day we become a big giant agency is the day we’re not unique, we’re another big agency. So it’s not just cool, it’s imperative that we operate like a global boutique.

Adweek: What are some of the lessons you’ve learned over the past 10 years?
Robertson: Those core principles we stand for, we bang away at those every day in every office, on every job, for every client. We’re committed to doing the best work and it’s not an empty promise. Saying it is easy—doing it is tough. The second thing is people. You need really high-impact players to be able to deliver that work. Everyone here is a practitioner. 

Lubars: We don’t have overhead here. Everybody’s attached to business.

Adweek: How do you two work together on new business development and client handling?
Robertson: We don’t work on every pitch and client together, but we work on a lot of them. If we’re working on a pitch, we’ll put together the team that’s going to run the business and then what we do is guide, supplement and add value. We don’t substitute for it.

Lubars: And when you wake up at 2 a.m. because your mind is still going and you’re checking emails, you find that Andrew is also up and sending you one.

Adweek: Anything over the past 10 years you would have done differently?
Robertson: Lots of things. Most often, it’s not moving fast enough. There’s a great quote from General MacArthur: “The history of failure in war can almost be summed up in two words: too late.” The absolute low point for me was November 2009, when I had to go to Detroit and tell 486 people we were closing because we saw no future working with Chrysler. That was a horrible time because they were really good people who’d been working like crazy for years on those brands.

Lubars: That was a terrible punch in the guts for us.

Adweek: How has David’s role changed with the worldwide expansion of his duties?
Lubars: I’m here to help the network, but I’m not a hood ornament. I don’t think my role has changed. My best contribution is having my hands on the work. I go where it is, where people need me.

Robertson: The leadership he provides is by example and that’s the way to lead a global creative function.

Adweek: What are the things you are most pleased with over the last decade?
Robertson: We’ve come closer than others in delivering on our promise of being the network producing the best work that works best. What I’m proudest of is we’ve managed to keep totally focused on that and to keep working at it every day.

Adweek: What was it like living through the Publicis- Omnicom merger negotiations?
Robertson: It wasn’t that tough because John [Wren, Omnicom CEO] and Randy [Weisenburger, CFO] did a good job of making that process an enormous amount of work for a relatively small number of people [at headquarters] and not just allowing but forcing the rest of us running divisions and networks to focus on doing that. We were extremely well insulated from all the hard work.