Cult of Personality

Years later, I still recall the interminable interview I had with a not-yet-medicated Ted Turner, during which he repeatedly lapsed into unintelligible rantings about Jane, the Braves and anything else that popped into his head.

I recall witnessing Ralph Ammirati’s legendary perfectionism. Taking me on a tour of his offices, he confirmed a story I’d heard about how he placed little white dots on the walls next to windows so the blinds could be drawn to the same level.

I remember the first time I interviewed Carl Spielvogel. We sat at opposite ends of a long conference table. After an unwelcome question, he had Louie the shoeshine guy take off my shoes, leaving me in stockinged feet for the rest of the conversation.

In my decade-plus covering the advertising and media business, these are the moments that stand out. And there are many more.

There was the heart-wrenching chat I had with Amil Gargano the day his agency closed. He had come from his office, where the computers and the furniture were being sold off. Not surprisingly, he was more than a little nostalgic and remorseful. But he gave me an hour, and it was fascinating. He talked about the good ole days—before finance trumped creativity, before the names on the door became garbled acronyms.

A few years later, in putting together Adweek’s 20th anniversary issue, we set up a series of shoots to photograph the legends of the business. It was 1998. For one photo, we arranged with The Four Seasons to shoot in the Pool Room. Actually, in the pool itself. So Ed McCabe, George Lois, Jerry Della Femina and Bob Levenson shed their shoes, rolled up their pants and hopped in.

These were talented people, creative people. They had original ideas. They were larger than life and told stories that went on for hours. They were characters, in the truest, most positive sense of the word.

When Phil Dusenberry announced his retirement recently, I started to wonder if this might be the end of an era. If all the big personalities who are leaving the business might not be so easily replaced.

After Dusenberry packs up his pencils in May, there’s just a few of that generation left. There’s Hal Riney (who has one foot out the door), Cliff Freeman (one of the few who has managed to keep his name on the door) and Lee Clow. There’s plenty of talent coming up behind them. But where are the personalities? Where is the star power?

Some blame the evolving nature of the business. “It’s a casualty of all the consolidation,” says Dusenberry. “It’s harder for any single personality or individual to stand out in the morass of people and accounts.”

“The business itself is infinitely less colorful,” agrees Donny Deutsch, a character in his own right. “The agencies themselves don’t have personalities.”

Perhaps it will just take time. Perhaps the next generation can come alive only after the previous legends step aside—as happened with Dusen berry and Co. after Bill Bernbach. But if the grand personalities are going for good, advertising will no longer have the stories—or much of the style—it has known. And it will be the poorer for it.