After 40 years in advertising, BBDO chairman Phil Dusenberry is retiring at the end of May, a month after he turns 66.
Dusenberry, one of the most acclaimed creatives in the industry, will turn over full responsibility for BBDO's worldwide creative product to Ted Sann, vice chairman, chief creative officer of North America and New York.
CEO Allen Rosenshine has worked with Dusenberry for 25 years, and said that in that time, they developed a "a jokey, New Yorky sort of line," which one of them humorously utters when they can no longer argue about the work: "What's the sense in talkin'?"
"It's our way of agreeing to move on and just get it done," Rosenshine said. The line is also a shorthand acknowledgment of what colleagues describe as Dusenberry's "obsessive," "ruthless," "relentless," "unyielding," "uncom promising" approach to the creative product.
True to form, Dusenberry was unwavering in his decision to retire, explaining in his unmistakable whisper that "it felt like the time was right to let go. It feels like everything at the agency is clicking."
By that he meant that not only is Sann more than able to finally succeed him, but also that North America president Andrew Robertson, whom he and Rosenshine recruited from AMV/BBDO in London, is ready after one year in New York to take over his client relationships. The hope is that Sann and Robertson can recreate the successful partnership of Dusenberry and Rosenshine.
Robertson said, "When it comes to the creative, three words you will never hear from Phil are, 'That will do.' It's that engaging obsession that I'll miss. I'm incredibly grateful for the DNA Phil has given the agency."
That DNA includes BBDO's uncanny ability to marry advertising to popular culture, its lavish production values, and an unparalleled use of celebrities in TV commercials.
All those elements came together in Dusenberry's most famous spots, for Pepsi in 1984, which featured Michael Jackson.
It was the client's idea to use Jackson, but then everyone wondered, "Now that we got him, what do we do with him?" Rosenshine said.
"Phil figured out how to capture the entire Jackson gestalt to sell a brand," said BBDO New York CEO Bill Katz.
Even the first ad he ever created had a celebrity angle. In 1957, the 21-year-old Brooklyn native wrote a radio spot for the Moonlight Drive-In Theater in Abingdon, Va., for the Debbie Reynolds film Tammy and the Bachelor.
Five years later, he joined BBDO as a junior copywriter, before leaving in 1969 to start his own shop, Dusenberry-Ruriani-Korn haus er.
Dusenberry rejoined BBDO in 1977 as associate creative director and helped land some of the agency's biggest, most loyal clients: FedEx, General Elec tric, Visa, Pizza Hut, HBO, Frito-Lay and, more recently, Cingular and KFC.
In the process, he helped transform BBDO from a research-driven shop that emphasized account management to one in which "creative excellence became the ethos of the agency," Sann said.
During the 1980s, he also found time to work on Ronald Reagan's re-election campaign and made an 18-minute documentary, A New Beginning, now ensconced in the Reagan Presidential Library.
Dusenberry's coiffed silver hair, smooth complexion and fastidious dress belie a rough-hewn childhood. The son of a cab driver, Dusenberry was forced as a teenager to adopt a surrogate-father role to five younger siblings when his mother became ill—a role that colleagues said continues to this day.
Although Dusenberry's legendary perfectionism spawned an industry joke that BBDO really stands for "Bring It Back and Do It Over," many describe him as sensitive and caring.
A rabid Yankees fan, avid golfer and active member of various charitable boards, Dusenberry insisted his retirement will be action-packed. He may even take another crack at screenwriting, having had one success as co-author of the 1984 film The Natural.
Rosenshine said he wasn't surprised when his longtime colleague said earlier this year that he would retire. "I talked him out of it so many times before," he said. "But this time I knew he was serious, so I thought, 'What's the sense in talkin'?"