Robertson Taps Lubars to Remake BBDO

NEW YORK The abrupt departure last Thursday of North America creative chief Ted Sann, the last remaining member of an entrenched power structure at BBDO, signals a seismic shift at the $3.3 billion agency.

By hiring creative chief David Lubars away from Fallon, Andrew Robertson, newly promoted to CEO of Omnicom Group’s BBDO Worldwide, sent a “serious, sharp message that the new guard is running the U.S. agency,” noted one executive.

Lubars, president of Publicis Groupe’s Fallon Worldwide and executive creative director of Fallon North America, had been Pat Fallon’s heir apparent at the Minneapolis shop, which has now lost two of its top two executives in less than a month. Lubars is set to arrive at BBDO after Labor Day.

Several sources predicted that BBDO will be an altogether different agency within a year or two. The shop’s tight-knit creative department, many of whose leaders have worked together for more than two decades, could turn over quickly, sources said. “What happens to that superstar level just under Ted?” asked one. “They can’t be happy.”

Those executives have helped to craft the 113-year-old agency’s reputation as a shop that makes splashy, celebrity-driven TV productions for high-profile clients such as Pepsi, Visa, Masterfoods and FedEx. By replacing Sann, 59, with 45-year-old Lubars, the agency is trying to tap into more modern strategies for a new communications landscape, said Robertson.

“This is about how we lead and develop our creative in a very different era,” he said. “David has proved he’s capable of giving consumers new and different experiences.”

In Lubars, 43-year-old Robertson has a contemporary partner who approaches advertising as more than just a television medium. During his six years at Fallon, Lubars developed the Internet as a marketing tool, pushing the agency to develop computer games for clients such as Lee and championing the innovative BMW Films Web series.

Just days before Sann learned he would be replaced, he was among a group of staffers toasting Robertson’s ascension to worldwide CEO at a party at Central Filing, the New York agency’s in-house bar. (Robertson took the title from Allen Rosenshine, who remains chairman.)

Sann, who could not be reached for comment, collected a slew of creative awards during his 34 years at the agency. He helped to build the modern-day BBDO with longtime colleagues such as Phil Dusenberry, who retired as chairman in 2002 after a 25-year stint at the agency, and New York president and CEO Bill Katz, who announced in January that he was leaving to pursue other opportunities after 23 years.

In a February interview, Sann described his relationship with Robertson, who arrived in April 2001, as, “Friendly, fine, good, professional.” He added, “We’re very different people with different styles. We spent some time learning how to work with each other.”

None of the four ecds who worked for Sann the longest-Charlie Miesmer, 61; Al Merrin, 58; Don Schneider, 48; and Jimmy Siegel, 50-could be reached for comment. Sources said Sann had designated Siegel, the top creative on Visa’s $300 million account, as his successor.

Commenting on the swiftness of Sann’s exit, Robertson said, “A change at this level, especially involving somebody coming in from outside, has to be communicated quickly. You can’t afford to have a sustained period of speculation, rumor and uncertainty.”

PepsiCo issued a statement expressing “shock” at the news, but noted that, “BBDO has always given us their best, and we know this legacy will continue.”

Lubars, described as cerebral, ambitious and a strategic thinker, is familiar with the agency from his 1993-98 tenure as chief creative of BBDO West in Los Angeles. He declined to outline any changes he has in mind. “I have to get there and see what’s going on,” he said. “They have a brilliant talent pool, and when you have [that], you can do anything.”

Sources said Lubars was looking for a larger stage and a bigger paycheck than he got at Fallon. Said Lubars, who was born in Brooklyn, “The idea of this venture and the chance to return to New York was strong.”

Lubars joined the shop in 1998 and was promoted to worldwide president of the $750 million agency last December. “Pat finally gave [Lubars] what he wanted, and he had crossed that off his list,” said one source. But Lubars had been feeling out opportunities for some time, sources said, engaging in discussions with Grey Worldwide last month.

At Fallon, the insular shop was taken aback by the announcement, sources said, which came at an agency-wide meeting on Thursday.

“I wish he weren’t going, but we have a history of doing well,” said founder and chairman Pat Fallon, who saw chief global marketing officer Mark Goldstein depart for Lowe last month.

Fallon, who had removed himself from day-to-day management in recent years, said he will take a more active role until he finds a successor. Lubars had worked most closely with Fallon’s Citibank client.

In a memo to employees last week, Fallon wrote: “I remain 100 percent confident in our future. And I remain driven to show the world your brilliance. This will all be OK.”

—with Andrew McMains