Nina DiSesa On The Spot

Nina DiSesa, chairman of McCann Erickson, began her second tour of duty at the New York agency in 1994 as creative director, a position she held for a decade until passing the torch last year to Joyce King Thomas. On DiSesa’s watch, McCann created award-winning work for MasterCard and Lucent. These days, the 59-year-old Brooklyn native is content to be semi-retired, tending to her dogs and the six horses she and husband Brian Goodall own on their farm in Dutchess County. She is currently writing a book about her years in the ad business.

Q: What inspired you to get into advertising?

A: I wanted to be a playwright. When I got out of [Brooklyn College], it dawned on me they weren’t hiring playwrights. I looked in The New York Times and there were no jobs for playwrights. So I figured I’d write for a newspaper. The Daily News said I could work on the women’s page, and I said, “Ugh.” I’m leaving town. So I went to Madison, Wis., where my sister was getting her master’s. I ended up getting a job in a department store, H.M. Manchester’s in the advertising department, writing ads. It took me a long time after that to get into an advertising agency. I was 30 when I went to work with Bill Westbrook at Cargill, Wilson and Acree.

Who has influenced you most creatively?

Bill Westbrook. I still say the things he said to me like, “Shit in, shit out.” It means if your strategy and your input isn’t good, you’re never going to get anything good. And about account people he would say, “I want them to be more afraid of me than they are of the clients.” I guess I didn’t take that to heart because I married an account guy.

What is the best or worst experience you ever had on a shoot?

I had a whole bunch of pictures of me on set during the years I was at Young & Rubicam … and I was always frowning. I don’t think I ever had a good time on a shoot in my entire career because I was always worried. If this line doesn’t work, what are we going to do? If that doesn’t work, then what? I was always looking for backup and contingencies and I never relaxed. Never.

What’s the smartest business decision you ever made?

My last one. In 1994, there were five big agencies looking for creative directors. Y&R, McCann, Ayer and D’Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles. I forget the other one. I talked to four of them and chose McCann. When I first came here from Y&R, it was a little bit of a culture shock. Y&R is a gentlemen’s club. If somebody’s going to get you, they do it with innuendo. You never see it coming. At McCann, if somebody’s going to get you, they stab you in the chest. You can see it coming. It took me a while to get used to. Then I became like one of the boys.

Is that good or bad?

Well, it’s tapping into your male side and forgetting your female side. I was argumentative, combative, competitive. When I went to J. Walter Thompson in Chicago, I had to have an immediate adjustment in my personality. All the soft sides of me, the collaborative side, the nurturing side, weren’t being used. In a Midwestern city, I had to change. I took those things with me when I came back here in ’94. There’s an expression: Some people kiss up and piss down. And I hate people like that. They’re bullies. So when I became the boss, I would tell people, “Come in and yell at me. Not the producer or the writer. Yell at me. I can take it.” I always yelled across and up.

And what’s the dumbest business decision you ever made?

Semi-retiring. I miss problems. The problems I have now are stupid problems. Like, is our phone service going to work?

What’s been the biggest change for you?

I can sleep at night. For 10 years as creative director, I thought I was Thomas Edison, that my brain was so brilliant I could really subsist on four hours of sleep a night. If I got up at 3 in the morning, I would work. But it didn’t occur to me all those years that I was getting up at that hour because I was just scared. Now I get seven hours sleep a night.

How do you get past a creative block?

The way we used to do it was to drink water. Jonathan Cranin got the idea for the line, “There are some things money can’t buy. For everything else there’s MasterCard” in the shower. We all drink a lot of water. So just the act of leaving your office to go to the bathroom, your brain is resting. That moment that you allow your brain to breathe is when the brain is going to come up with an idea. I tell the creative people to go to a movie. Go to the park. Give your brain a rest.

What is your dream assignment?

My dream assignment now would be to work with the mayor of New York. If I could, I would make my town a better town; that would be a dream assignment.

What’s the title of the book you’re writing?

Seducing the Boys Club. What I had done [at McCann] was come into this boys’ club and by my powers of persuasion, I got all these boys to work together. To get in touch with their female side. Then I realized I didn’t change them so much as they changed me. We both have male and female sides. There are times to know when to use each.

If you had to choose a profession all over again, what would it be?

I would study neuroscience and then go into advertising. The people who are studying neuroscience right now and are going into advertising are going to rule the world. Trust me on that. I’m positive about that.