Q&A: BBDO’s David Lubars

NEW YORK David Lubars, chairman and chief creative officer of BBDO North America, won his first Cannes Lion in the early 1990s for Polaroid while he was at Leonard/Monahan in Providence.

Since then, the copywriter has won every major industry creative award including multiple Grand Prix Lions and four Emmy Awards. As president and executive creative director of Fallon Worldwide, Lubars was honored with Cannes’ first Titanium Lion — an award introduced in 2005 to celebrate groundbreaking work — for the trailblazing online series BMW Films. Last year, BBDO’s multimedia “HBO Voyeuer” was the big winner at Cannes, taking both the Outdoor and Promo Grand Prix Lions.

Here, Lubars, who is president of this year’s Cannes Film and Press juries, discusses the value of award shows in today’s economy and what he expects from Cannes this year.

Adweek: Are awards even important considering the economic times we live in? Some people are saying that in this economy, Cannes and the other big shows are unnecessary “beauty contests.”
Lubars: Well, there is a beauty contest element to it, sure, but that’s a small part of what these shows are about in my view. Consider that in the past year, clients all over the world had to cut back massively. They had to accomplish more with way less. Logic follows that everything they created had to pop that much more and be that much more of a punch in the face. In this light, you could view Cannes and other big shows as a primer on how to take the power of creativity out for a ride, press the pedal down, and see what it can do on a bumpy economic road. These good shows are the closest thing we’ll ever have to measuring this kind of “pop.” It’s not an exact science, it never can be. But if a bunch of creative people who rarely agree on anything believe one piece stands out from thousands, it probably is working hard to get noticed.
Will this year’s economic environment return Cannes back to basics?
The whole thing about this is to recognize brilliant work that pops out. It should be about studying and recognizing the best work. And what it became was a Euro beach version of Vegas. That’s all fine, but the original charter of this show is to recognize brilliance and work that distinguishes itself, that doesn’t pollute the culture [that epitomizes] all the best aspects of the industry, tries new things — all those idealized things that we all shoot for. I’m going to be spending 12 days there doing this thing.

BBDO was the most awarded agency network in the world last year. To what do you attribute this success?
Well, that’s an area where we believe we should consistently be No.1 every year. The cool thing about BBDO is, it’s not just a few offices that are creating excellent work around the world. Last year, we had 20-plus BBDO agencies winning Lions and another 20-plus short-listed. The network has sort of become a global boutique, if you will. You have these great — and for the most part, not huge — agencies doing brilliant individual things. But you also have groups of them working together on cross-border things. Recently, we had 10 offices doing an international project with Gillette. It was inspiring; it was all about the work, not ego — a thing of beauty.

You’ve enjoyed success at Fallon. Now BBDO. How do you shape an agency’s culture?
It’s not complicated. You meet [agency leaders] Andrew Robertson or Pat Fallon and you immediately connect: You believe an agency culture has to remain liquid, that you have to keep stirring it to prevent it from hardening into immoveable cement; you believe in constant improvement; you embrace and utilize the chaos that is an agency culture rather than try to tame it. You fail together sometimes, but you’re fortunate to succeed much more. It’s difficult. You’re tired at the end of the day, but you’re constantly refueled by the fact that you’re creating things that contribute to the clients’ success in important ways.
I’ve only worked with a few agencies, and the decision to join them came down to the same question: Whether we all agreed that big ideas are economic multipliers for clients. It’s not award-winning work so much as giving them big ideas. Yes, big ideas do win awards. But they don’t always, which doesn’t mean they’re less big. You may remember the first year of BMW Films, it didn’t win at Cannes, it was considered too “out there.”
What about the fact that you were the most awarded creative director last year? Did it go to your head or change you in any way?
It didn’t. Some years are good and some not as good. The permanence lies in keeping your head down and putting all your focus and concentration on giving clients the work they need. Everything else is artifice; there is nothing else.
You talk about the philosophy of keeping an agency culture out in front doing new things. You mentioned BMW. Other “new things” associated with you are HBO Voyeur and the Dodge Ram Challenge. How did you convince your clients to get those made?
All three happened exactly the same way. You had clients who wanted something new to crack the “cement” we talked about. And you had creative people, production people, account people, planners and everyone else who believed in a big idea and killed themselves to make it happen. By the way, Ram Challenge isn’t winning as many awards as the other two did. I can’t say why, but in my view that doesn’t make it any less of a big idea.
How did last year’s award run benefit BBDO and the network? What was, as they say, the ROI?