Phil Dusenberry Takes The Pepsi Challenge

For many students of Madison Avenue, Philip B. Dusenberry epitomized `80s advertising. The vice-chairman of ad agency BBDO Worldwide captured the giddy optimism and over-the-top extravagance of the decade in lavish television commercials for clients such as PepsiCo and Gillette. For Pepsi's "Choice of a New Generation" campaign, he hired Michael Jackson to star in some of the most elaborate productions ever staged for a commercial.

If you want to know what `90s advertising will be like, check in with Phil Dusenberry these days: He's poring over storyboards for the Pepsi ads that will debut during the Super Bowl on Jan. 27. The big issue: when to flash on the screen a toll-free telephone number for a $10 million interactive promotion. It's part of a contest in which Pepsi will award $1 million each to three viewers who call in with the best rendition of Diet Pepsi's new theme, "You've Got the Right One Baby, Uh-huh."

LESS FIZZ. Fussing over a toll-free telephone number may seem prosaic for the creative director who helped coin the slogans "We Bring Good Things to Life" for General Electric Co. and "The Best a Man Can Get" for Gillette Co. But times have changed, and Dusenberry, the standard-bearer for the warm-and-fuzzy advertising style that dominated the `80s, is retooling his approach for a chillier age.

Like many of BBDO's clients, Pepsi is waging war for market share in a tightening economy. As he readies Super Bowl ads for Gillette, Federal Express, Pizza Hut, and L. A. Gear as well as Pepsi, Dusenberry is aiming to retain his signature gauzy images while girding his advertising for a more rough-and-tumble market. "You could create an upbeat, optimistic campaign in the `80s," says the 54-year-old Dusenberry. "But now, you have to take account of the tenor of the times." That means more hard sell, with ads that appeal as much to the pocketbook as to the emotions.

BBDO's previous campaigns for Pepsi promoted the soft drink by attaching it to glamorous celebrities. But now, Pepsi is offering giveaways and coupons. Conventional wisdom holds that such techniques do little to burnish a brand's image. What's more, Coke is sponsoring a multimillion-dollar Super Bowl promotion of its own. So Dusenberry is trying to make ads that glitter a bit so Pepsi won't get lost in a telecast that has come to resemble a giant Wheel of Fortune.

His solution: Push the promotion, but with images that look as much like vintage Pepsi feel-good advertising as possible. To that end, BBDO has produced spots that show stars such as Ray Charles and regular folks from Africa to China warbling the new theme. "If the commercial just said, `Win $1 million,' it would prevent us from doing anything creative or entertaining," he says.

A similar mix of hard sell and glowing images will show up in BBDO's other Super Bowl ads. With its L. A. Gear commercial, for example, the agency will try to sell the company's new athletic shoes on their performance, but with a spot showcasing the artistry of basketball star Karl Malone. Previous L. A. Gear ads done by a house agency simply played up the brand's stylishness. In Pizza Hut's new ads, actors playing Domino's delivery workers spurn their own pizza for slices from rival Pizza Hut.

Most BBDO clients don't want Dusenberry to drop his classic images even as he adapts to leaner times. Apple Computer Inc. Chairman John Sculley describes the new Macintosh campaign as "vintage Dusenberry." Says Sculley: "Phil reaches into the soul of the product." In one commercial, a teacher extols the virtues of mass production to his students. But even that ad gets across a subtle message that the Macintosh is now moderately priced.

If anybody can weather change, it is Phil Dusenberry. The eldest son of a Brooklyn cabdriver, he dreamed of becoming a professional baseball player. When scouts told the 5-foot-6 Dusenberry he was too short for the pros, he turned his sights to advertising and joined BBDO as a junior copywriter in 1962. He rose through the ranks to become chairman of BBDO's flagship office in 1988.

Dusenberry owes his success as much to his ability to direct and motivate staffers as to his creative instincts. With a gentle voice he describes as "Dracula-like," Dusenberry eschews the histrionics of many agency chiefs. But the silken image belies a demanding boss, who freely describes BBDO as a sweatshop. "When things go badly, the phone call from Phil is extremely soft, but it's like hearing from the Godfather," says Steve Hayden, who oversees advertising for Apple and L. A. Gear.

Such management finesse pays off: Dusenberry has assembled the best big-agency creative staff in the industry. The Super Bowl will show off this new generation of creative talent as well as Dusenberry's own evolving philosophy. How many viewers pick up the phone to respond to Pepsi's million-dollar offer will let him know, fast, whether he still has the golden Dusenberry touch.