This September David Lubars celebrates his tenth anniversary with the network. Under his leadership, BBDO has become not only the dominant creative force in New York City but among the most awarded in the world (BBDO is currently ranked #1 in the Gunn Report), and David has been ranked the world’s most award-winning creative director for the last two years. He has personally won over 70 Lions and over 100 One Show pencils. His series of films for BMW from 2002, when David was President of Fallon Worldwide and Executive Creative Director of Fallon North America, was the first ever Titanium winner at Cannes and now forms part of MoMA’s permanent collection in New York City. At Cannes, David has served as Chairman of the Titanium Jury and has chaired the Film and Press Jury. Michael Weinzettl chatted to the top creative about his awe-inspiring career in advertising.
Hello, David, first of all congrats on your tenth anniversary at BBDO, which is coming up this fall. Your first Archive interview was published in summer of 2006, when you had been with BBDO for a little longer than a year. Could you try to give us a recap of what has happened in those eight years?
We set out to be a 21st century version of a kickass 60s New York agency: fast, nimble, resourceful, low politics, low-process, creating magic for our clients that their customers would love and respond to. We’d be media-agnostic, push the boundaries, try new things. A global boutique, if you will. Anyone reading this knows there is no finish line in this mission: you never get to say, “Okay, done.” It’s a constant push. My partners’ and my job is – pardon if I use a metaphor – to keep the concrete from hardening. We’re always stirring it so things stay fluid, flexible, open to whichever direction. Loose concrete is messier to manage than comfortable hardened blocks. But it’s how magic happens for our clients. Our people are comfortable in this sort of … let’s call it “purposeful chaos.”
What, since we last talked to you, has changed and what has remained the same when it comes to advertising creativity?
Some things haven’t changed: humans still respond to big, simple, beautiful ideas; they still respond to storytelling rather than just telling; and they still respond better when they like your brand. It’s not complicated: if you want to be loved, be loveable. The biggest change in the last few years is how creative people work now. It used to be, they were creators. But now, because of the market’s unquenchable thirst for more and more material, and clients’ desire for lower and lower production costs, they’ve also become makers. You’re seeing a new combination of art director, writer, director, camera operator and editor emerge. It’s a more entrepreneurial, guerrilla approach, and it’s liberating for our people: you think of it, you make it, you get it out there. Reminds me of something I read about how John Lennon made his Instant Karma single. Didn’t want to go through the months-long production and promotion process of the Beatles. So he wrote it, recorded it, and had it out on vinyl within a week. And it’s a great record.
When I look at our Ranking of Agencies whose work has featured in Archive over the past ten years, AMV BBDO, Almap BBDO, and BBDO New York are all in the top ten positions (#3, #5 and #10, respectively), which means there is a constant stream of excellent work pouring out of your network. What’s it like to be CCD of a network that produces such top-quality work across the globe? Does it make your job easy or can it be a big challenge to maintain the excellence of the BBDO product?
I don’t take credit for Almap BBDO’s or AMV BBDO’s performances; they were brilliant long before I had this title. To answer your question, it’s both easy and challenging. Again, we think of ourselves as a nimble global boutique. But, unlike most boutiques, we do what we do for very big clients where the stakes are incredibly high. In the “hardened concrete” world, I would imagine “boutique” and “big” seem contradictory. But it’s not if you find the special people who have the rarefied DNA to do it. Not just creative people, either – everyone. That’s the real challenge. We’ve been fortunate to be a magnet for a lot of these people and we don’t take it for granted for a second; we’re grateful for them every day. But, yeah, finding them is the trick. When you do, things become easier and go very quickly.
Also, Sancho BBDO from Bogota has in the past couple of years joined the ranks of top BBDO agencies, and we’re happy to feature their work in the magazine quite frequently now. Can you give us your take on why South American advertising has become so very strong creatively in recent years, when it used to be just Brazil (in print) and Argentina (in film) for many years?
Sancho BBDO is doing great work, yes, it’s nice of you to point that out. I think they were also the #2 ranked agency in the world in last year’s Effie Effectiveness Index – they’re doing well on all fronts. There’s no doubt you’ll see more great agencies, and more great work, emerge from all over South America. It’s not unlike the US in the early 1980s: up till then, only agencies in New York did great work but then – seemingly overnight, boom! – a bunch of brilliant agencies sprang up across the continent that, in many cases, outdid New York.
What have been some of the high points since you became Global CCO of BBDO?
There’s been one consistent high point: that we’ve become a global boutique and have not let anything distract us from remaining so. This is because we have great people around the world driving our company horizontally. Our talent depth, and our genuine liking for each other, is an amazing advantage. We’re a team in the truest sense. We nurture this; it’s precious and we believe it’s an economic multiplier for our clients.
What are some of the BBDO agencies – apart from the ones I’ve mentioned above, together with Clemenger BBDO, Sydney, of course – that seem particularly promising to you?
We have many agencies doing work at a high level. Yes, Clemenger is fantastic, but also places like Colenzo, in New Zealand; BBDO Guerrero, Philippines; BBDO Singapore; Net#work BBDO, South Africa; BBDO Russia; and, I’ll mention New York again, now under the excellent new creative leadership of Greg Hahn. Two offices that I’m particularly proud of are CLM BBDO in Paris and BBDO Germany in Berlin and Dusseldorf. The two agencies were not doing anything special just a few short years ago but they’ve both reinvented themselves in remarkable, Cannes-winning ways. Again, once you find special people, the rest happens quickly.
Do you have regular meetings where all of the CDs of your network get together and discuss, critique the work?
We do have meetings but they’re not regularly scheduled. It’s difficult for us to get together in a template way because our creative leaders all still make work and have intense client commitments. I believe this is an advantage and sets us apart: no overhead in the creative department anywhere in the world, including me. We do things for clients that help grow their businesses. It’s the value we bring and will always trump regularly scheduled worldwide meetings. That’s not to say we don’t meet – we use technology to do this and, yes, we critique work with an emphasis on the “critique” part. When we do physically get together, we also invite our best junior people, as they’re our future.
As CCO, you must be spending a lot of your time on planes. Is that a burden to you or have you managed to accommodate this time into your work schedule? What are the pros and cons of the extensive travel schedule you must be facing in your position?
I do spend a lot of time on planes but these trips are focused exclusively on seeing clients and working with them to build their businesses. BBDO is a fantastic culture with great partnerships but, as I’ve mentioned, it’s not one with gobs of internal meetings to talk about whatever. We’re entrepreneurial; we’re here to serve clients; we’re here to get work done for them.
When you were at Fallon, you were famously ahead of your time in creating a campaign for BMW that utilized online as well as TV. I’m talking, of course, about those series of online films directed by Guy Ritchie that have become part of MoMA’s permanent collection in New York City. At the time, this mix was almost unheard of. I remember you telling us about the Cannes Festival sending you back the material since they didn’t know where to place it. Nowadays, everyone is doing these mixed media things. Is it still the way for you to go, too, or does it completely depend on the product/the brand you’re working for?
I wasn’t ahead of my time – our team was ahead of its time. I can’t emphasize enough the power of a few good people working together in synch, playing off each other’s strengths. Anyway, yes, Cannes sent the work back. I was confused and angry: “You’re telling me that a show designed to recognize out of the box thinking is penalizing this for being too out of the box?” Hahaha, I’m still angry about it now! Everything was rectified the next year when Dan Wieden created the Titanium to recognize the Films – and all future submissions that didn’t fit neatly into a category. As far as mixing media goes, it’s not new. In the old days, you had TV, print and radio – that’s mixed media. Today, it’s 11 or 14 or 20 different channels, but what you’re still trying to do is surround and delight your audience.
What do you think is the next big thing in advertising? I know you don’t like to predict the future but you are, of course, an expert at spotting trends that are about to happen or have already started to happen.
I’m not an expert, I see the same things everyone else does. What’s happening now is video. Video is everything. On large screens and very small ones. These are two very different viewing experiences, so you need different kinds of work for each. Agencies have to become great at six-second films, hour-long films, and everything in between. They have to learn to do them fast; they have to learn to generate a lot of material inexpensively; and they have to keep quality high. A tough checklist, but it can be done and is being done. I can point to our Lowes Vine videos from last year as a good example of a successful small-screen effort. Each film presented a quick blast of useful information but it was also entertaining so you wanted to watch more than once.
Since we’re first and foremost a print publication I just have to ask you how you see the future of print in general (print advertising as well as print publications)?
I think high quality, specialty magazines will continue to thrive. Things like the British music magazine MOJO; or Architectural Digest; or all the high-end fashion books; or Archive. But mass, general interest magazines will go digital, or be replaced by new digital entries.
Would you agree that, nowadays, viral is a key factor in the success of an ad campaign? And is a viral some-thing that can be planned in advance, or is it wholly dependent on the consumer/user?
I do agree – in fact it’s crucial. Our best recent work has become famous because of how it’s been passed around, not because of heavy media budgets. When people send something to someone else, they’re not just giving your client free exposure. It also means the person became emotionally invested with the brand, spent time with it, liked it so much they wanted to share it as an extension of themselves. What’s that worth? Viral can be seeded, but the huge viral successes don’t happen with data planning. The best ones become a phenomenon because the material is so fantastic and magical that it spreads like wildfire. It becomes a cultural zeitgeist moment, everyone talks about it. How do you plan for that? Your client asks for brilliance that will move people.
How does David Lubars relax – if that’s at all possible for a man in your position?
I’m a family man, that’s my respite.
What are your hopes for Cannes this year? BBDO was Network of the Year for five years in a row, then lost the peak position in the last couple of years to Ogilvy & Mather. What are the chances of BBDO getting back on top in 2014? I’ve heard you say that winning at Cannes has become even more vital today than it used to be. Could you elaborate on that a bit?
I have the same hope I have for us every year: that we win real iron for real clients. The reason I respect Cannes – and the other important shows – is I believe it’s one of the important elements in assessing whether your work is as successful as it can be for your client. There are left-brain analytics from the IPA (Institute of Practitioners in Advertising) and Gunn proving that creative work is more effective than non-creative work. And that award-winning creative work is more effective than non-award-winning creative work. So if you win at the important shows, logic suggests you’re not leaving sales on the table because your work wasn’t cutting through enough. And, interestingly, when we compare our list of EFFIE winners to our Cannes winners, it’s almost invariably the same list. Coincidence? No.
Would you say this is a good time for students to try to get into advertising, and what advice do you have for young creatives starting out in the business? Certainly the set of skills required from them today is much larger than it used to be, don’t you think?
It’s a great time for students to get into the business because there are more things happening now than at any time in the industry’s history. It’s exciting and new every day; perfect for easily bored, ADD people like me. My advice would be: have thick skin, take criticism and rejection well. Being able to bounce back is crucial. You must kill yourself and never think what you have is good enough. One of those sages from the 60s said, “The best people are always terrified that they’re about to be fired, while the mediocre ones are always shocked when they are.” Words to live by. Don’t chase money, chase brilliant work. Do that and money will chase you.