Q&A: Phil Dusenberry

Phil Dusenberry, the 71-year-old former chairman and chief creative officer of BBDO North America, is being inducted in 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,” and has earned 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 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 spends his time between the Hamptons and New York is battling cancer: “So far, so good,” he says. Last week, he chatted with Adweek editor Alison Fahey.

How are you feeling about your Hall of Fame induction?
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 conscious 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.