Q&A: Dusenberry, the Natural

NEW YORK Phil Dusenberry, the 71-year-old former chairman and chief creative officer of BBDO North America, is being inducted into The One Club Creative Hall of Fame this week.

Dusenberry joined the New York agency in 1962 as a junior copywriter and went on to help create some of the longest-lasting slogans in ad history, including GE’s “We bring good things to life” and Visa’s “It’s everywhere you want to be,” earning nearly every creative accolade along the way.

His most famous work, though, was his celebrity-filled spots for Pepsi that branded the cola as “The choice of a new generation.”

Somehow, he also found the time to co-write the Robert Redford film The Natural.

Now retired, he’s “working on a lot of different things,” including the “Don’t almost give, give” campaign for the Ad Council. Dusenberry, who splits his time between the Hamptons and New York City, is battling cancer: “So far, so good,” he says.

Last week, he chatted with Adweek editor Alison Fahey.

Q: How are you feeling about your Hall of Fame induction?
A: Well, I’m feeling good about it. I have, in years past, seen other folks inducted and I’ve thought, “Gee, what a nice thing that must be.” And so it’s finally happening and I’m really happy about it. It’s an honor.

Is this a profession you would choose today if you were starting your career?
Well, I don’t know, because it’s such a different business than it was when I came into it.

In which ways mainly?
First of all, it was a lot more fun. We were involved in making movies, in creating drama and having a great time. The business today has become more of a bottom-line business. And that’s taken some of the steam out of it.

Speaking of the old days, are you watching Mad Men? What do you think of it, considering it’s supposed to be about BBDO?
That’s what I’ve heard. The way they dress is right, I recall that. The way they drank was right, as well. But I don’t know about the rest of it.

What do you miss the most, and the least, about the business?
The thing I miss most is the interaction with people and being involved with the work, running it through your hands, presenting the work and standing up for it and feeling proud about it. What you don’t miss are those irate phone calls from clients asking why their campaign isn’t working as well as they hoped.

What do you see as the impact of digital and new media platforms on the business today?
Back in the old days, TV, radio, outdoor, newspaper were the way to go. Now there are many more ways of reaching the consumer. And I think clients have decided, and their agencies as well, that the more ways they can reach out and touch the consumer, the better off they are.

Do you agree with that?
I do, as long as it doesn’t dilute your main message…from your television, your outdoor, print, etc., because the more money you spend, and the more you proliferate your dollars, the less impact you’re liable to have if you spread it around in too many places.

What do you think of the state of copywriting, given that we have user-generated content and consumer influence in the creative process?
As far as consumer-generated content, I think that’s a joke because you should leave it to the pros to get something done. You may luck out and catch an idea from some amateur, but that’s not really the way to go.

So, you think it’s a fad.
I don’t think it’s going to last, and you’re going to see it take a powder very soon.

Even though “consumer engagement” is the phrase of the moment?
The whole idea of consumers generating ideas is like pulling your own teeth as a dentist. Leave it to the professionals. That’s what they’re paid for.

If there’s one creative decision that you could change, what would it be?
One was letting Steve Hayden get away to Ogilvy & Mather. The other one was signing Madonna [for Pepsi]. It really hurt us. It only ran once, but it caused such a ruckus that it was a real problem.

Of everything you’ve done, what are you most proud of?
The Pepsi work I was involved with over the years.

Can you point to one ad or campaign?
I was very pleased and happy with the fact that Ted Sann won the [Cannes] Grand Prix for “Archaeology.” That was a real highlight.

What is your favorite campaign out there today that didn’t come out of BBDO?
I like the Geico work [from The Martin Agency]. They do a really great job.

What do you think about the cavemen getting their own TV show?
That I’m not crazy about. … I don’t know. It doesn’t seem right to me.

Who is the most visionary client you’ve ever worked with and why?
Well, a few come to mind. Roger Enrico, great marketing guy, great ideas guy, great instincts. Jack Welch, same thing. Fred Smith and, of course, the guy who recently passed away, Alan Pottasch, who was the keeper of the flame and the creative conscience of Pepsi. He was among the absolute all-time best. They don’t make them like that anymore.

Who was the toughest client to deal with?
I would say Welch, followed closely by Roger, because they were so demanding. They wanted it exactly the way they saw it, and lots of times they were right, and lots of times they weren’t exactly right. And you had to really toe the line. You had to come in all spit and polished, all shined up and ready to go.

Who had the most influence on your career?
John Bergin was my mentor when I was growing up in the business. He was a tough guy and he made you set your standards high.

Give me three words to describe the business today.
Dollars and cents.

Three words to describe the business in its heyday.
Fun, fun, fun.

Given your experience with the Tuesday Team, which helped re-elect Ronald Reagan in 1984, what do you think of the current state of political campaigning and advertising, and do you think industry creatives should still wield influence in that process?
I definitely think they should be part of that process. Unfortunately, the political strategists still have a heavy hand in the advertising and they should leave it to the professionals.

What is your favorite BBDO campaign today?
I would have to say the FedEx work, the GE (“Imagination”) work, those come to mind.

Why do they stand out for you?
They’re different, they’re fresh and they’re going after the viewer in a very captivating way. They’re rather innovative in their own way.

When you signed Michael Jackson for Pepsi, BBDO helped initiate the era of high-profile celebrity-endorsement deals. How do you feel now about the use of celebrity endorsers; is it smart, considering the 24/7 scrutiny given to their personal lives?
I think you have to be much more careful these days and really consider who you are signing up, because you could well be stepping into a trouble pit. For example, you wouldn’t want to sign Britney Spears or Michael Vick today, but three or four years ago, they were good choices. I think celebrity advertising still has a place, but you must be triply careful now as to who you choose and you have to check them out up one side and down the other.

What is the creative trend that worries you most?
It’s getting away from the brand-building advertising that you want to see on television. That is a dangerous point and we have to be careful of that. I mean, the Internet is all well and good and these other digital avenues are very valid. But if it pulls you away from the image building that you try to create, then you have a bit of a problem.

How closely do you stay in touch with your former colleagues or pay attention to what’s going on in the business?
We stay in touch, we talk. I see David Lubars for lunch now and then. And I talk to my old cronies at BBDO.

What do you talk about?
We talk about the fact that the business isn’t as much fun anymore (laughs).

And I bet they agree with you.
They do.

What would you say your smartest decision has been?
I think the smartest decisions have been been hiring some of the people I have hired.

Such as?
Michael Patti, who is one of the great talents. Don Schneider. Hiring top-notch people is the name of the game because without them, you don’t have a chance.

Who was your favorite person to work with?
A couple of people come to mind. Charlie Miesmer was one, Ted Sann is another.

The word “perfectionist” has always been a word used to describe you. How would you describe yourself?
Well I think that’s right. Perfectionist. Persistence. And that I desire the highest quality.

What would others say?
They would probably come close to the same thing.