Allen Rosenshine, the chairman and chief executive of BBDO
Worldwide, shifts his weight and leans insistently into the tape
machine. ’Yes, there is something else. From a personal point of view,
there’s one thing I kinda want to get off my chest.’
We’ve been going for an hour and a half. It has been a fascinating
conversation with a man who not only runs arguably the most creative
large network in the world, but was one of the principal architects and
first chief executive of Omnicom. Rosenshine deserves to be listened to,
but what hadn’t we talked about? Well, I suppose I did ask.
’I am seen possibly in the business and trade press as being something
of a new-technology curmudgeon,’ he begins, returning to a subject that
has clearly been niggling him. ’It could not be further from the truth.
I will just not play the game of jumping on bandwagons of embracing
ill-thought-out strategies of what agencies need to be.
’I think the internet is the most powerful force in communications ever
to come down the pipe, OK? I cannot conceive of any other that will
provide the opportunity for any person in the world to talk to any other
person in the world unencumbered by any government or authority. Short
of taking away the hardware and software from our homes, they can’t stop
’At the same time,’ he continues (with evident frustration), ’it’s
dangerous to assume that because one can advertise on the internet, it’s
a good thing, given what the technology affords us. Slapping banners on
the internet is a waste of time and a waste of money. But will the net
allow us the opportunity to communicate in ways we haven’t thought of?
There are certain similarities shared by most of Campaign’s Kings of
Madison Avenue. Here we are in yet another corner office suite with a
view, shepherded by a glamorous PR woman. Inevitably, there are certain
subjects that almost always come up: the internet is one; globalisation
another; consolidation, conflict and the lack of available talent are,
invariably, on the list.
However, Rosenshine is not like all his peers. He joined BBDO as a
copywriter in 1965 and has been there ever since. He became the creative
director in 1975 and the chief executive worldwide in 1985. The Omnicom
’big bang’ happened a year later. He was chief executive of the holding
company for three years, during which time it tripled in size.
Nevertheless, he was very happy to get back to advertising when the
former BBDO-er, Bruce Crawford, became the Omnicom chief executive in
As a result of this background, ’the work’ is the obsession at BBDO.
While so many other agencies aspire, and pay lip service, to the ’big,
global and creative’ positioning BBDO occupies, only DDB Needham and -
arguably - TBWA, Lowe and maybe Saatchi & Saatchi can do so with real
With BBDO, it’s even in the PR handouts. ’The work, the work, the work’
is all over its external communications.
More importantly, it’s in the culture, a word that crops up endlessly
when talking to BBDO people. It’s an agency that’s run primarily by
creatives, with the vice-chairman, Phil Dusenberry, and the US creative
director, Ted Sann, far more to the fore than in other agencies.
Rosenshine himself, like Dusenberry, was a copywriter. So, why do almost
all agencies seek the same positioning?
’They make the same mistake as when they’re working on their client
business,’ Rosenshine flashes back. ’They look at the research. And the
research says that what every client wants is creativity - which is
bullshit (a favourite Rosenshine word). That’s what clients think they
need to say.’
To the British eye, the best-known BBDO work, as epitomised by Pepsi,
does have a certain similarity to it. It’s glossy, big budget and
heavily dependent on technology and stars.
And, other than that technology, little different from the kind of
60-second epics you could have seen at the agency ten or even 20 years
But at least you know BBDO isn’t embarrassed to show and discuss its
’When we talk about ’the work, the work, the work’ - it doesn’t mean
that every piece you ever put out is an award-winner,’ Rosenshine
’It means that you’ve developed the talent base and ability to always be
doing the best work in that category.
’Am I foolish enough to tell you that BBDO does brilliant creative work
for all its clients in all its markets? Of course we don’t. We are
talking about capabilities. That’s true of when an agency needs to
shepherd, not create, international work itself. The real issue is to be
able to capitalise on the opportunity for which you will be
This issue is clearly one that applies to Abbott Mead Vickers, in which
BBDO - belatedly - took a majority stake last year. Rosenshine is
evidently relieved that his long-term quest to have AMV under his
control has been satisfied. And, he insists, it makes a huge
’It has created a remarkably instantaneous attitude shift. Until then
AMV - understandably - had a different agenda. How could we argue with
them saying ’our first responsibility is to our shareholders’? I think
they were being honest in that concern, and now that concern has gone,
they are 100 per cent devoted.’
Rosenshine claims that BBDO is now ’pretty much there’ at effecting a
majority holding in its other agencies in Europe, the lack of which
proved such an obstacle to David Wheldon when he was in his European
regional role - a job now held by the AMV chief executive, Michael
’David certainly was not lacking in intellect, knowledge or strategic
thinking,’ Rosenshine says. ’But he came into the job thinking he could
operate in a way that was not conducive to the BBDO culture. And we
didn’t sensitise him to those issues well enough.
’He came in with the not unreasonable expectation that if he felt
something needed to be done, then people would line up to do it. At
BBDO, that takes some doing. BBDO was built up on entrepreneurs. It’s
different with Michael Baulk - he’s lived with those issues. It was just
a bad mesh with David.’
Rosenshine has a refreshing honesty and directness about his
It’s an attitude that’s built on confidence in both BBDO’s and his own
abilities. The agency has benefited hugely from its position under
Omnicom’s umbrella. Which, of course, was Rosenshine’s original
motivation back in 1986.
The success of Omnicom’s Diversified Agency Services group has allowed
the agency to ’tend to its business’, like AMV today, unburdened by the
weighty responsibilities of being a public company. Nevertheless, 14
years on he is able to look back on the early days of Omnicom in a more
healthy detached way.
’As far as the headline we created for Omnicom - ’the first global
creative superpower’ - goes, it was nice rhetoric, but how are we
(Omnicom) a global creative superpower? We happen to have in Omnicom,
first in Bruce Crawford and now in John Wren, leaders who are very
attuned to the need for the agencies to have creative reputations.’
Rosenshine suddenly becomes extremely insistent - perhaps it’s yet
another bugbear that he wants to get off his chest: ’I don’t think it’s
intrinsically good or bad if John Wren or, for that matter, Martin
Sorrell, are admen. If they have strengths or weaknesses, it’s not
because they are admen. But, at last Cannes, who won 50 per cent of all
the Lions awarded? Omnicom agencies. Fifty per cent!’
Rosenshine concedes that in 1986 he did not foresee the extraordinary
consolidation that subsequently took place: ’We were just looking after
our own business.’ It doesn’t matter that Omnicom is the number one
global group or that BBDO is the number three ranked agency in the US.
’What matters is being part of the premier league.’
But, with the business changing so fast, I ask whether BBDO’s previous
reputation for strength in the big blockbuster world of the old
mass-market television era could not soon transmute into a reputation
for being something of a dinosaur? Could you become a victim of your own
Rosenshine is adamant: ’I think we have the advantage of coming to the
changes that are happening in the business today from a perspective of
historical creativity that will still be in great demand and cannot be
’It is easier to translate BBDO’s heritage and culture and dedication to
the work into the new technology disciplines than it is for the new
technologists to achieve the level of creativity that they’re soon going
to discover they are going to need in order to be successful. For me,
this comes back to branding. This is what justifies agencies’ existence.
This is how agencies will prove the Doomsday prophets wrong, prove that
we are not dinosaurs that will ultimately become oil fields.’
He says all this with great passion. Like so many of the true greats in
the ad business, he believes in advertising entirely. There is no
cynicism about its role or worth, and he is critical of agencies who are
embarrassed to be called ad agencies.
’I’m not at all embarrassed. I’m banging my cereal bowl any time I can
on the issue that the agency’s franchise is the consumer,’ he
’The consultants that everyone says are eating agencies’ lunch - they
are not even beginning to nibble at that lunch. They can’t.’
However, Rosenshine concedes that ’only a fool’ believes that the next
25 years will be about TV and print in the way the last 25 were. What’s
more, BBDO is having tremendous initial success with its nascent
internet marketing agency, @tmosphere. No client cares what the agency
is called, he says, but they do care about where the talent is.
Whether he likes the descriptor or not, Rosenshine does sound
But that is not meant as a criticism. He sounds old-fashioned in the way
that Frank Lowe, Lee Clow, Tim Delaney or John Hegarty sound
old-fashioned: he believes that agencies should believe in something. He
remains entirely consistent in his views, an absolute advocate of
advertising and an obsessive about the end product, the work.
Of course, he knows that BBDO must grasp the internet by the horns, but
he is healthily removed from the blind frenzy surrounding the
’Look at the way we, the dinosaurs, who don’t ’get it’, are being turned
to by those companies who, supposedly, do get it and are being asked to
give them an identity.
’It’s not enough to do some wacko commercial on the Superbowl to get
noticed. It’s not a short-term thing. You don’t build a brand
ba-ra-boom, ba-ra-boom, dollars 50 million, dollars 70 million, dollars
100 million in one year - that doesn’t build a brand. There’s too much
money out there.’
Asked whether the climate smelt like the 80s all over again, Rosenshine
demurs. The 80s, he believes, were all about ’top-down stuff’,
investment bankers - for all their ’nonsense, greed and bullshit’
practising classic economics just to get the deals done.
’What you didn’t have then, that you have now, is all the online
investing,’ he says, warming to his theme. ’My God, you have a totally
uncontrolled universe of investors out there, and what is going to
happen when the first panic sets in? The thing that makes me nervous
about Microsoft is not Microsoft, but all those investors in
He describes the net impact as bringing a new dimension to what drives
the new-tech companies, and why they do or do not achieve their
ridiculous multiples. ’It’s hard to have a p/e with no ’e’,’ he says,
not for the first time, I’m sure.
Alongside his partner, the softly spoken Dusenberry, Rosenshine commands
and deserves respect. One simply cannot argue with their achievements at
BBDO. He is refreshingly free of adman bullshit and is commendably
frank. So much of what he says sounds like plain common sense - hearing
it makes me realise how undervalued this quality is throughout the
It is not hard to see why it is so difficult for BBDO to find a
successor to this extraordinarily motivated 60-year-old, with many
strings to his bow, including being on the executive committee of the
Partnership for a Drugs-Free America. He claims to have already
conducted two exhaustive worldwide searches to no avail. The answer may
now come from within BBDO, and may not have to be an American. ’Any
ideas?’ he quips.
But in such fast-changing times, he will need to watch that BBDO’s
consistency of strategic thinking and creative work do not turn into
sameyness and dinosaur arrogance. There is, however, no doubting the
It’s there in the mini-speech he gives (with a laugh at how long he’s
been talking) in closing: ’BBDO is not afraid of new technologies. We
endorse them. But it’s easy to make a titillating speech or presentation
about the future. We hate talking to clients about blue-sky stuff. It’s
not in our nature. So you could say we don’t participate at the leading
edge, but most of the leading edge is bullshit.’