On The Spot: Dennis Ryan

Success and gray hair came early for Ryan, 39, who made his name writing beer ads at DDB before landing the top creative post at J. Walter Thompson in Chicago. A year ago he moved to crosstown startup Element 79 Partners, whose most recent work was Michael Jordan’s “23 vs. 39” Gatorade spot. A Notre Dame grad with Irish good looks and a baritone voice, Ryan is far more serious about advertising than one might expect from the brains behind the size 19 shoe for Miller Genuine Draft.

Q. Michael Jordan is almost 40, he’s involved in a lawsuit with a woman he had an affair with, and he’s not even the best player on his team. Why’s he still a good spokesman?

A. Michael Jordan is the greatest player to ever grace the game. And he stands for and embodies the will to win, which is exactly what Gatorade stands for. He is the perfect Gatorade spokesman. On the set he is so ridiculously handsome, he’s in unbelievable shape and really charismatic.

Beer, Gatorade—what are the differences for you?

Beer has been a terrific experience because it genuinely taught me to create comedy and rewrite and rewrite and rewrite, which I think is the basis of good comedy writing. Gatorade is a totally different challenge in that … we’ve always seen sports-highlights films—it’s not the action, it’s the story behind the action that makes that action interesting. We could do “impact, impact, impact” visuals, but if there isn’t any kind of guiding theme below it, it’s just a highlight film on a sports show.

What was your first ad?

It was a [1984] Michelob Light print ad in the “You can have it all” series. I had the back cover of Rolling Stone, which I was absolutely thrilled with. But the front cover was Bruce Springsteen at the apogee of his fame, so no one ever saw my ad.

Who had the biggest influence on your career?

Probably [DDB U.S. chief creative officer] Bob Scarpelli. He’s an extremely generous boss, and he was always very supportive. He focuses on the work extremely well. At the same point, he empowers people to go and do great things. That’s a hard thing, to trust that way, and when someone shows you that kind of trust, you appreciate it. Makes me feel I gotta do that for people I work with now.

What work are you most proud of?

I’ve had Jason [Alexander] parachute at the Super Bowl, the Clydesdales play football, now Michael Jordan playing one-on-one with himself. But probably the one I’m most proud of is [“Let’s make something good”] for Kraft Foods. I can make people laugh all the time, but people would tear up over the spots, which never happens with commercials. It was a chance to make truly emotional advertising reflecting our consumers’ lives and how Kraft intersects with them.

Is there a Dennis Ryan brand of humor?

No. I just love surprise. I can be as surprised by a Life cereal commercial as I can by a Pepsi ad.

JWT’s “Never miss a Genuine opportunity” work for Miller Genuine Draft was criticized in some quarters as too prurient. Did you push it too far?

I’m not in the business of creating blights on the culture. At its best, advertising can advance things and certainly add joy or occasionally even—God forbid—insight to the national discourse. I’m very proud of the MGD stuff. I don’t think there’s any shame—in fact, I think it’s the highest compliment—when you create laughter. What I especially liked [about a spot in which women were intrigued by a guy with huge feet] is, we told you the viewer that you were smart enough to get it. We didn’t do the American Pie kind of “Look at me now” humor. I showed it to my parents, and if I can show it to my parents …

Name the last ad that made you think, I wish I’d done that.

I love the Ikea ad with the lamp in the rain—that is so true. Before I hit the ground laughing, I was already jealous.

What’s one thing you’d change about the business?

I would make sure that anyone who’s able to touch and influence an ad could only do so in proportion to their experience. Those who know should be doing the most. Those who know the least should be doing the least.

How do you get past a creative block?

I listen to music, go for a walk, talk to your dog. And if that doesn’t work, bourbon’s always good.

What are three words you’d use to describe yourself?

Energetic, enthusiastic and large.

What’s your biggest fear?

Sounding like a self-righteous dork on this interview.

What’s your motto?

Mistakes were made. It’s a catchall excuse that kind of softens the edges of grand and noble experiments. Actually, now that I think about it, that’s my epitaph. My motto is “Dum spiro, spero”—While I breathe, I hope.