The Kings Of Madison Avenue: Allen Rosenshine - The founder of Omnicom and BBDO chairman gives Stefano Hatfield a piece of his mind

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.’

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?

Of course!’

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

advertising world.

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

agency’s integrity.

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.’


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