Time shortly after word came in january that Miller Brewing would retain Fallon McElligott as creative agency on Miller Lite, David Lubars, the shop’s 40-year-old creative director, made an announcement: He was going to sleep.
Miller’s decision may have been a surprise to some industry observers, but Lubars’ exhaustion wasn’t. “We worked five months straight,” says Lubars, who was days away from taking a much-needed vacation with his family. “Every night late. Every weekend late. Christmas and Thanksgiving. Twenty weekends in a row.”
But his dedication paid off. Despite being the “anti-front runner,” Lubars pulled off a vital save: keeping the agency’s highest-profile account. After all, as creator of the award-winning–but widely criticized–“Dick” campaign, Fallon was a long shot. But the agency trumped such formidable rivals as Wieden & Kennedy, Publicis & Hal Riney and Square One. “It might have been politically easier for Miller to switch,” admits Lubars. “But they said they were going with the best idea–and they did.”
The winning idea is a throwback to Miller’s “Tastes Great. Less Filling”
campaign from the ’70s, with sports and entertainment stars asking what makes Lite good: quality hops or smoothness? “David came into one of the toughest situations [for] a creative director,” says Jack Rooney, vice president of marketing for Miller. “Through his leadership, [Fallon] came up with a strategy that kept the business intact.”
The dramatic save, coming seven months after Lubars joined Fallon, not only kept creative duties on the $150 million account at the agency, it also helped solidify Lubars’ status as leader of one of the country’s most highly regarded creative shops, especially internally. “It brought him a comfortable confidence,” in himself and among creatives at the agency, says art director Bob Barrie, a 15-year Fallon vet. “I don’t know if anyone else could have led us through that.”
Filling the role formerly held by Bill Westbrook, now president of international, was no easy task. In 1997, after helping turn Fallon into a $500 million national powerhouse in four years, the president and creative director, then 52, decided to step back from day-to-day operations, and the search began for a replacement.
Early on, the agency considered Lubars. A Boston University communications grad, Lubars began his career as a copywriter at Chiat/Day before becoming a partner at Leonard, Monahan, Lubars & Kelly, Providence, R.I. and later moving to Los Angeles. At BBDO West, his work included award-winning campaigns for Apple and Pioneer.
Over the years, Lubars built a reputation for creative talent and the gift of rooting out high-profile accounts. As CEO and chief creative, Lubars muscled BBDO West into a closed pitch for Starbucks (an account that followed him to Fallon last year).
“He’s demanding. He’s tough. He doesn’t suffer fools gladly. But he’ll fight to the death for great creative,” says marketing director Mark Goldstein.
Still, Lubars initially turned Fallon down. In deference to new hires and recent account wins at BBDO West, Lubars told the agency he wasn’t considering offers. Months later, Fallon approached Lubars again. This time, chairman Pat Fallon employed the full-court press, and Lubars finally accepted the job.
Having worked at BBDO West for almost five years, Lubars says he was ready to command creative duties at an agency’s headquarters. At the time of his move, sources said he was also disgruntled that BBDO in New York had spearheaded the agency’s unsuccessful pitch for Levi’s jeans in ’97. Lubars felt the L.A. office was better suited to lead the effort, sources said.
Yet a diplomatic Lubars says Fallon, a national player, made him an offer he couldn’t refuse: leading an agency with its eyes on global expansion. “I was sad to leave BBDO, but I was excited to come and do what I wanted to do here.”
Lubars admits following Westbrook and other Fallon creative directors such as Tom McElligott and Pat Burnham was initially intimidating. “[But] once you dive in, you’re up to your neck in mud,” he says. “You can’t focus on much else except doing your job.”
In terms of personality, Lubars and Westbrook couldn’t be more different. Westbrook commands rooms with his presence alone; Lubars is more unassuming. Westbrook, who renovates hotels in his spare time, is a Southern gent, charming and easygoing. Lubars, hoping to play guitar with a local rock band, is a New Yorker with a direct, intense personality. “Their styles are different,” Goldstein says, “but as far as knowing the difference between great and good, they share the same qualities.”
By most accounts, Lubars’ transition has been smoother than Westbrook’s was in ’93, when he left The Martin Agency for Fallon, notes Barrie. More collaborative than Westbrook, Lubars is seen as interested in his staff and their insights. On a personal note, Barrie, 43, adds, “He’s probably the first creative director who has been close to my age, and he’s the first Fallon creative director I’ve enjoyed going to lunch with.”
Ten months in, Lubars has acclimated to his new environs. “Minneapolis is surprisingly cool,” he says. “It’s got a great theater and art scene and some SoHo-like areas.” He’s also added to the agency’s 40-member creative department. Chris Robb, Lubars’ BBDO West art director partner, came to Minnesota with him. Lubars also hired former colleague LML&K copywriter Kara Goodrich and Holland Mark Martin Edmund creatives Roger Baldacci and Scott O’Leary. In fact, Peter McHugh cited Lubars as one of the reasons he returned to the agency after a short stint as executive creative director at Hal Riney & Partners/Heartland in Chicago.
Though Lubars and Fallon management downplay titles, to the outside observer his value to the agency is clear. In January, the creative director was also named co-president of the agency, alongside planning director Rob White.
Lubars wants Fallon, with offices in Minneapolis, New York, London and an eye toward Asia and South America, to build an agencywide creative team that collaborates on all projects. He points out that Jamie Barrett, creative director of the New York office, helped on the Miller Lite pitch and the Minneapolis-based Swedish creative team, Linus Karlsson and Paul Malmstrom, are working with Barrett in New York.
“We want to be a network that truly collaborates, not a bunch of silo offices with the same franchise name,” Lubars says.
Fallon’s Minneapolis headquarters will bear Lubars’ stamp next year when the agency moves into customized space that better fits his vision. Staffers will be housed by brand, regardless of what department each work in. “They rub off on each other, and then you start breaking the mold,” Lubars says.
Lubars considers breakthrough advertising to be work that becomes part of the culture. He relies on a visceral, know-it-when-I-see-it instinct to tell him when the work is right. “People think creativity is a science, and science goes into it,” he says. “But in the end, it just feels right. That’s my job.”
For example, Lubars points to Fallon’s new Holiday Inn campaign, which introduces Mark, a 37-year-old loser who still lives with his parents and wants the same benefits at home that travelers get at Holiday Inn. With deadpan humor, the spots promote the company’s amenities–from kids stay free to flyer miles–while enveloping the brand in the tagline, “What do you think this is, a Holiday Inn?”
“Here’s a campaign that’s clever, but it’s also a wrapper that you can put the whole brand around,” Lubars says.
It is also a far cry from the shop’s controversial 1997 “Reunion” spot featuring a transsexual. While the latest Holiday Inn campaign is not as risk-taking, says Lubars, it is much better suited to the mid-America brand.
Ultimately, Lubars expects Fallon’s reel to display a variety of styles. “Qualcomm will be different, a new way to talk about technology. Rolling Stone will be culturally hip and provocative. Starbucks, emotional and soulful,” he says. United’s elegant campaign is intended to convey the spirit of the world’s largest air carrier, and new Buddy Lee work for the Lee Co. flirts with the spokesdoll’s icon status, pairing him with actress Sarah Michelle Gellar.
Lubars says he’ll rely on his gut to keep the agency from falling into the trap of mediocrity. “The idea is to keep trying to do something new,” he concludes. “You can’t necessarily plan those things. If you could, you should be running the country.”
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