Thursday, January 3, 2008

Reflecting on Phil Dusenberry

Like many of you, I've been reflecting over the last few days on the legacy of Phil Dusenberry, one of the few true ad legends that actually inhabited the ad business at the same time most of us have been in it. There's something poignant about his passing away now, and a bit young, at 71. It's somehow symbolic, as though—if any of us needed reminding—here's yet another sign that the days when commercials and network TV ruled are long gone. I've read at least some of the obits, but the one that truly struck the wrong chord, was the one in The New York Times (sorry guys, but it needs to be said), with this almost New York Post-ian style lede: "Philip B. Dusenberry, the advertising executive who oversaw the 1980s Pepsi commercial in which Michael Jackson’s hair was accidentally set on fire, died on Saturday at his home in Manhattan." Even though he wrote a book whose title reflected on that rather headline-grabbing commercial shoot, it in no way represents his career; today's paid announcement in the NYT seems more on the mark. Instead, his career was distinguished from many of his creative peers not just by commercials that often loomed much larger culturally than their allotted 30 seconds, but also by his ability to do this within a massive agency—from the inside. The Carl Allys, the Allan Beavers, the Ed McCabes weren't able to do it that way.
As a reporter for Adweek who at one point covered BBDO, I had an encounter or three with him, and what shined through was his graciousness, even during circumstances that were less than ideal. I'm speaking specifically of the time I "outed" him as the creator of a pro-life campaign he did for the Arthur S. DeMoss Foundation. The ads had been airing for a bit when someone else in the newsroom tipped me off that they were done by him. Forget, for a moment, which side of the issue you're on; the campaign was a high-impact tour de force. The commercial I remember most focused on a group of young children cavorting happily, shot in lingering, soft focus, slo-mo that tugged at the heart strings, and then came the voiceover: "All these children have one thing in common. All of them were unplanned pregnancies . . . that could have ended in abortion. But their parents toughed it out, listened to their hearts and discovered . . . that sometimes the best things in life aren't planned. Life. What a beautiful choice." We joked in the office about how the theme line was effectively a mash-up of the ones for GE—"We bring good things to life"—and Pepsi—"The choice of a new generation" but I think we were stunned at the forthrightness—and the secrecy. Perhaps the strangest thing about the incident to me was that it was so obviously his work that when I called him to talk about it, I never even asked him to confirm he was behind the campaign. Instead, I jumped to the second question—asking why he did it. I don't remember his response, although I do recall that, despite the fact that he was effectively a deer caught in the headlights, he kept his cool. I don't think he ever spoke publicly about the spots again, even though they became such a big story that Newsweek covered it, and also The Today Show, which put me on-air to talk about them, I think mostly because he'd turned them down.
Even though I was doing my job, I never felt quite right about how the story unfolded. After all, this was a part of his private life, not his public life, and he had his reasons for not putting his name on the campaign. Whether it was because of the secrecy of the DeMoss Foundation, or that he didn't want his point of view on the issue known within an industry and city that is heavily pro-choice, is something we'll never know. The irony, of course, is that Dusenberry's work was always undeniably his, so much so that a campaign in which he wanted to be behind the scenes still bore his unmistakable mark.
Here's another remembrance of Dusenberry from my former Adweek colleague, David Kiley, now at BusinessWeek.
George Parker also has a few thoughts including a lively discussion thread here. And a second post here.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Here’s one more belated perspective regarding the legacy of Phil Dusenberry.

I worked on the Coca-Cola account during Dusenberry’s heyday with Pepsi. The campaigns produced by BBDO consistently kicked Coke’s ass. Has there ever been a better example of a challenger brand spanking the sales leader? The Pepsi advertising not only established the brand as cool, but it also positioned Coke as the dinosaur. The Coca-Cola Company, unfortunately, responded in ways to support Pepsi, taking a mostly clumsy defensive stand. Pepsi would introduce Michael Jackson at the zenith of Jacko’s popularity. Coke would stumble in months later by trying to sign up Tito or Jermaine or some equally lame alternative. Coke executives insisted they were unfazed, and almost took a bizarre, false pride in declaring, “We’re not Pepsi, and we’re not trying to be.” Yet one could easily argue that BBDO’s efforts inspired the Atlanta corporation to launch New Coke, the sweeter, Pepsi-like version of Coca-Cola, which remains an undisputed all-time blunder. BBDO always established breakthrough platforms for clients that absolutely blasted competitors. It’s sometimes overlooked that Dusenberry’s work was more than entertaining and memorable creative—it was brilliant marketing strategy.