Nina DiSesa is exceptional. She is the only woman in the whole of
the United States to hold the position of agency chairman and chief
It has taken her 26 years to reach these heady heights at
McCann-Erickson Worldwide’s New York office, but DiSesa is unfazed,
probably because she’s used to setting records. On joining McCann’s
flagship office in 1994 as executive vice-president, executive creative
director (the job is as grand as it sounds) she made history as the
first woman in the agency’s 92 years to claim the top New York creative
Seeing DiSesa in action last month as chairman of the Kinsale
Advertising Awards and speaker at one of the conferences, it isn’t hard
to see why she’s smashed through the glass ceiling.
She has a confident and captivating style of delivery and began her
presentation with a few jokes, striding around on stage with her hair in
bunches, seeming more like a hot US stand-up than an agency suit.
By the time she’d finished her Mastercard presentation, members of the
audience were almost reaching into their wallets to tear up their Visas,
so convincing was her argument and so moving were her ads. This may go
some way to explain why McCann scooped dollars 500 million worth of new
business last year and why the Mastercard campaign has entered US
culture - it was recently the subject of a spoof ad on the Letterman
DiSesa first joined McCann in 1987 and departed in 1991, leaving the
AT&T campaign - ’we want you back’ - as her parting shot. It is, she
says, one of her best campaigns - and she is not alone in this view.
According to sources in the industry it was one of the major reasons why
she was courted by four agencies while at the creative helm of J. Walter
Thompson Chicago in 1994. DiSesa eventually opted for McCann and a
performance-based contract reputed to be worth between dollars 500,000
and dollars 600,000 a year.
DiSesa always wanted to be a writer. At school she wanted to write
At college it was plays. She even tried journalism but didn’t want to
work on the women’s pages and ’wind up writing about pantyhose’. So she
wrote ads instead.
’If you’re into instant gratification, there’s nothing more satisfying
than advertising,’ she says.
Her first foray into the business was in the ad division of a department
store. She took her first agency job in 1973 as a copywriter at Cargill,
Wilson and Acree in Richmond, Virginia.
She then moved to Young & Rubicam, where she worked for five years on
accounts such as KFC and Frito-Lay. After that she joined McCann to work
on AT&T, Alka-Seltzer, Nabisco and Waterman Pens and later joined JWT
Chicago where she became executive vice-president, executive creative
director. DiSesa remembers the distinct cultures at each agency.
’In the 80s, Y&R was a very process-driven place and it was like a men’s
club. I’d yell and scream in the halls to get them to take notice of
’McCann was also like a boys’ club, but a rowdy one. It was also
entrepreneurial, we could do what we wanted. At JWT, I couldn’t write
because I was involved in management more and was too busy putting out
At JWT, she was part of a team that revived a struggling agency by
revamping the creative department. This comes as no surprise to those
who have worked with her. DiSesa’s fellow Kinsale judge, Paul Shearer,
deputy creative director at Euro RSCG Wnek Gosper, jokes: ’She’s as
tough as a Slovakian coal miner’s boots.’ But he adds: ’With a
personality bigger than the Empire State building, you knew straightaway
she was someone you were going to like. Nina made everything seem
At McCann, DiSesa attempts to manage in a spirit of shared
’A good creative director is empathic. A lot of CDs manage in an
environment of fear but I think you can be firm and keep raising
creative standards without being denigrating. Creative people are
insecure enough. They don’t need another level of fear on top of
She also believes that a creative team should be given freedom and be
rewarded for its efforts. ’They won’t learn and grow if you’re hovering
over them all the time. You have to allow them to work as a team. I’m a
passionate believer in the team concept and a good leader deflects the
glory to them.’
DiSesa cites the recent Agilent Technologies and Solomon Smith Barney
work as examples of McCann’s creative strengths.
Agilent, a mosaic of individual stories narrated by Anthony Hopkins,
uses the line ’Dreams made real’ to show how technology can transform
lives. Work for the brokerage firm, Solomon Smith Barney, was described
as ’beautifully shot and intelligently written’ by the trade press.
Ben Langdon, managing director at McCann’s London office, has
experienced DiSesa’s team spirit on multinational accounts. ’She’s
passionate about creative work, and is driven, feisty and intelligent.
You wouldn’t miss her in a crowded room.’
Although DiSesa first entered advertising out of love for the written
word, she now accepts that it is the idea which is the most important
thing. ’I try to encourage my writers not to write their way out of a
paper bag, but to think their way out.’
So what does the future hold for DiSesa, who recently celebrated her
She has committed the next five years to McCann but has shunned the
position of worldwide creative director because she doesn’t want to
spend her life at airports.
She would, however, like to complete two writing projects - one a novel,
the other a book about the industry. ’It’s impossible to do now. When
you get home at 8pm you can’t start writing - least of all about the ad
industry. I’d rather shoot my brains out.’