The World: A lifetime dedicated to the pursuit of perfection

Adland remembers Phil Dusenberry, a man whose work transformed BBDO and set new creative standards.

Phil Dusenberry, who has died aged 71, was an advertising obsessive. The pursuit of creative perfection consumed, enthused and tormented him all at the same time.

Just as well he was a genius at it. Indeed, there are many who would argue that Dusenberry is one of the few names worthy of being uttered in the same breath as industry giants such as Bill Bernbach, David Ogilvy and Rosser Reeves.

During a relationship with BBDO that spanned four decades (he retired as the chairman of BBDO North America in May 2002), Dusenberry set out the philosophy and set down the standards that became synonymous with network agencies across the world.

"He was one of the truly great creative leaders," Allen Rosenshine, the former BBDO Worldwide chairman and chief executive, comments.

"Phil was a man of great advertising taste," Peter Mead, the Omnicom vice-chairman, says. "Nobody did mainstream better than him."

Michael Baulk, the former Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO chairman, is equally admiring. "He transformed BBDO New York from a big agency that did decent work to an even bigger agency that did brilliant work," he says.

"As the worldwide creative head, he set BBDO apart from its rivals by giving local offices the space, time and freedom to create the right work for their markets."

Dusenberry was demanding and driven and had no qualms about puncturing egos, no matter how big or famous, if he thought that creativity would be compromised.

Rosenshine recalls how Michael Jackson refused to remove his sunglasses when filming a Pepsi campaign. Dusenberry told him: "The glasses come off, or we're outta here." The glasses came off.

He hated the way a major campaign could be undermined by politics. More than once, he stormed into Rosenshine's office to resign, always prefacing it with "I can't take this crap any more".

"Happily for us, he could and did," Rosenshine smiles. "Phil never accepted what has today become too often the case in advertising - difference for its own sake, producing advertising without any understandable message. For him, no matter how the creative might titillate, if it didn't make sense, it didn't make it."

His perpetual hunt for the consummate campaign caused one BBDO wag to warn: "If you eat with Phil, don't order a salad. He'll remix it!" Another of his former senior staffers says: "For all of us, BBDO meant Bring It Back And Do It Over."

Rule by fear was anathema to Dusenberry. He preferred to let his work underpin his authority. He gave General Electric a human face with his line "We bring good things to life" and assured stressed businesspeople to "Relax, it's FedEx". He dubbed Gillette as "The best a man can get", created memorable work for Pizza Hut and introduced Home Box Office with the line: "It's not TV. It's HBO."

He pinpointed side-splitting moments when the antidote for hunger was to "grab a Snickers" and articulated New York's unquenchable spirit in the wake of 9/11 with his film The New York Miracle.

He never swore in public, but could be quietly devastating in private. His verdict on one unfortunate creative team's work: "There's lemons, there's shit and there's dogshit. And this is dogshit." The title of his 2005 memoir summed up his philosophy - One Great Insight Is Worth A Thousand Good Ideas.

"Phil was never a shouter or a desk-thumper - he didn't need to be," a former associate says. "There was an aura about him because he had such astute judgment."

Baulk recalls going to a BBDO worldwide conference in Santa Fe with a rough cut of the Guinness "surfers" spot destined to become one of the most famous commercials in advertising history.

"It was nothing like anything anybody in US advertising had ever seen before," Baulk recalls. "But Phil got it first time."

Steve Hayden, now the vice-chairman of Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide, was hired by Dusenberry in 1985 to work on Apple. He says: "Creative people weren't afraid of Phil. They were just terrified of disappointing him. His approval was the currency of the creative department."

Rosenshine agrees: "Even when he argued with you or turned down your work, you never believed there was any ego or motive other than his passion for doing better."

In coupling charisma with quiet authority, Dusenberry set a style others such as David Abbott were to follow. The then AMV BBDO creative director was hugely influenced by Dusenberry's work. And it was a major factor in AMV's decision to join the Omnicom-owned BBDO network in 1991.

"David thought Phil's work was wonderful," Mead says. "They both spring from the same DNA."

Always the immaculately groomed gentleman, Dusenberry's style belied his humble origins as the son of a Brooklyn cab driver. He went to college on an athletics scholarship, left when the athletics programme was cancelled and worked briefly in radio before joining BBDO as a copywriter in 1962.

The New York agency was his spiritual home. He did suffer from a "seven-year itch", quitting for a short time to start his own shop. However, it failed to fulfil his expectations, and by 1977 he was back as an associate creative director.

During his subsequent rise through the ranks - from chief creative officer in New York to vice-chairman of BBDO Worldwide and chairman of BBDO North America - Dusenberry's influence on the style and tone of the network's creative output was huge.

In taking the flagship New York operation to new creative heights, he is credited with transforming the BBDO network into arguably the world's most creative by making it an attractive partner for like-minded agencies across the globe.

In turn, they sought to replicate New York standards in their local markets. "The work produced in New York had a profound impact on BBDO everywhere," Rosenshine contends.

At the same time, he ushered in a new era of big-money celebrity endorsements. Jackson, Madonna and Michael J Fox were among the stars whose pulling power was harnessed for BBDO clients.

Moreover, his talents were not confined to advertising. A lifelong baseball fan, he co-scripted what some claim to have been the definitive movie about the sport, The Natural. He also helped create the "morning in America" commercials that aided Ronald Reagan's re-election as president in 1984.

Tragically, Dusenberry's death from lung cancer came just three months after he, along with Tim Delaney, had been inducted into the One Club's Creative Hall of Fame. At the time, he cited Pepsi, GE and FedEx as the accounts he'd most enjoyed working on.

Perfect though much of that work was, it's a safe bet that Dusenberry was never entirely satisfied.

"Those of us lucky to work with Phil knew he always wanted more time to make it better," Andrew Robertson, the BBDO Worldwide chief executive, says. "Sadly, he didn't get it this time."