Ted Sann

The chief creative officer of BBDO New York and BBDO North America toiled as an elevator operator, a social worker and a teacher before figuring out he could parlay his MFA from the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa into a copywriting job. Sann, 58, joined BBDO three decades ago (his first ad: a Schafer beer spot directed by Ridley Scott), helping to build the stodgy agency into a creatively minded powerhouse. He talked to Adweek in between preparing Super Bowl commercials for no fewer than six clients (Dodge, Frito-Lay, FedEx, Gillette, Pepsi and Visa).

Q. What’s your favorite Super Bowl ad ever?

A. I’d go for [the 1995 Pepsi spot] “Inner Tube.” It’s got every piece working right. And it’s dead simple—in a complicated way.

What about from outside your agency?

One of my all-time favorites was the [McDonald’s] Michael Jordan and Larry Bird spot. The Bo Jackson stuff Nike did, the Y2K spot.

What do you attribute your longevity at the agency to?

Punctuality [laughs]. The place has changed so many times, I feel like I’ve been at three or four agencies. And it’s always managed to fulfill what I need creatively and as a career.

How would you characterize your 23-year relationship with former president Bill Katz?

Sometimes it was easy; sometimes it was hard. But it was always a great and productive relationship. Plus, it was a lot of fun.

What do you consider the greatest success of your partnership?

New York’s record.

What’s the most important thing you learned from retired chairman Phil Dusenberry?

He had this unfailing respect for work, and that respect rubs off onto everything you do. Nothing’s too minute to obsess on.

What do you obsess on when evaluating work?

The idea. I’m not into big warm-ups and explanations and preambles—what’s the idea? It is a way to get to the point and see if there is one, because oftentimes there isn’t. And when it gets into production and editing, I love that part—that also is something I really obsess over.

How do you stay hands-on at your level?

Two rules: great creative directors; no hobbies.

What’s the agency’s greatest weakness?

A tendency to just see the work and not see beyond it to how you can solve the problems, how you can be more useful to your clients. What do we need to be thinking about here in a broader sense? The recent Pepsi campaign is a good example of turning our heads around and saying, “We’ve got to think about this differently.” It’s time to look at [the brand] in a very different way.

BBDO rarely loses creatives, yet last year both Michael Patti and Gerry Graf left. Why?

One of the unique things about BBDO is that it’s a great place for creative talent to develop. Unfortunately, this makes us a target for agencies unable to grow their own. In Michael’s case, he thought it was time to run his own show. I wish him the best, but I’m sure a part of him still feels BBDO. Gerry? Well, I’m still trying to figure that one out. But I wish him luck.

You also had some high-profile client losses last year. What was the most disappointing?

KFC. We probably weren’t as attuned to their needs as we needed to be. It’s a lesson we collectively promised ourselves we’d learn from.

Commercials may have less impact in the future. Where does that leave an agency that’s so well-known for its TV work?

It’s one of the things that drives me a little nuts, that people think, “It’s only a commercial.” It’s “only” a commercial if it stinks. If it actually makes the point, and if it engages people, and if it touches them emotionally, then it’s not only a commercial. Yes, there are changes in the media, but I think we’re going through this period of self-loathing where everything’s bad advertising. That’s a crock. Television and print advertising combined are an incredibly effective medium for communicating what a brand is about, and if anybody has anything better, I’d like to know what it is, ’cause I haven’t seen it.

What’s the last ad you saw that you envied?

Nike’s “Angry Chicken” spot. I loved everything about it. The Citibank [identity-theft] campaign is a neat, simple idea. Some of the Volkswagen stuff last year was really strong, and I liked those [Fox Sports] hockey spots.

You once described the creative department as a cross between Rhodes scholars and the Corleone family. Does that fit today?

No—we’ve eased up on the Corleone family a bit. I think we’ve gotten nicer with each other. The place has become more human.

Describe your relationship with [North American CEO] Andrew Robertson?

Friendly, fine, good, professional. We’re very different people with different styles. We spent some time learning how to work with each other, but I think it’s been going great.

Can you describe your management style?

Direct, terse and work-focused.

What do you do in your downtime?

I write stories. If I get 15 of them, I guess it’ll be a book. I read an enormous amount. I ride my bicycle. I like to go to the country. I go to the theater. I love music, so I try to see as much and hear as much of that as I can.

What’s one important thing people don’t know about you?

My great-uncle was a magician.