Ask David Lubars, the 2017 recipient of the Clio Lifetime Achievement Award, what he’s most proud of and he’ll reject the question. “Pride is not my thing,” he says. What is? He pauses. “Healthy paranoia,” he answers with a laugh. “It’s a tough skin to live in. The best creative people are like that, always looking over your shoulder. It’s what helps keep you and your clients ahead.”
It’s that restlessness and perpetual dissatisfaction that has helped the 58-year old straight-talking copywriter from Brooklyn ascend to the top of the creative ranks of the advertising industry. The venerated chief creative officer of BBDO Worldwide and chairman of BBDO North America admits he’s not all that comfortable talking about himself and the upcoming celebration, where he’ll have to make an acceptance speech, is causing him some angst. “I like the work telling everything about me,” he says.
Lubars has produced an enviable body of work that has transformed agencies, their clients, and the industry at large. His pioneering work for BMW, the seminal web series BMW Films “The Hire,” set new creative standards for digital media and spurred the growth of an entirely new type of advertising: branded entertainment. The 2001 campaign and its 2002 sequel, produced while Lubars led creative at Fallon Minneapolis, was such a watershed moment in advertising, it inspired the creation of Cannes’ first Titanium Lion, an award established by then jury president Dan Wieden to represent the festival’s highest honor for work that made “the industry stop in its tracks and reconsider the way forward.”
“BMW Films opened up a whole new avenue for the internet at the time,” says Greg Hahn, chief creative officer of BBDO New York, and a writer on the second BMW Films series. “It broke the mold and freed up people to build off it. And it also showed clients that this is a medium that people are willing to engage with. … This was before a lot of people had broadband. You had to download it at night and watch it in the morning. You really had to want to watch it.”
BMW Films also gave the agency an elevated creative pedigree and future-facing mission. Lubars, a copywriter who began his career at TBWA/Chiat/Day in Los Angeles and Leonard Monahan in Providence, R.I., had been leading creative at BBDO West in Los Angeles, working on brands such as Apple, Starbucks and Pepsi, when he was tapped to join Fallon in Minneapolis in 1998 as creative director. Along with Bill Westbrook, Lubars drove a creative renaissance at the agency that produced notable work for Miller, Lee Jeans, Citibank and United, among other clients. Memorable campaigns included the EDS Super Bowl spot “Cat Herders” and the Emmy-winning PBS ads “Photobooth” and “Fish,” but his biggest hit was BMW Films.
“He turned Fallon into a new century agency,” says Hahn, who has worked with Lubars for nearly 20 years, first at Fallon and now at BBDO. “Fallon was always great; it was in their DNA. But David came in and injected this idea of searching out new ways beyond print and TV.”
Everyone noticed the career-making campaign, including Andrew Robertson, BBDO’s newly appointed global CEO in New York. He had already been well aware of Lubars, having first met him in the mid-nineties when Lubars was working at BDDO in Los Angeles and he was at Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO in London. “I loved his restlessness,” says Robertson. “He was never satisfied with anything, not in a dismissive way, but in a hungry and ambitious way.”
Soon after being named CEO in 2004, Robertson recruited Lubars to re-join BBDO to help him modernize the Madison Avenue powerhouse. Best-known for slick, celebrity-laden Super Bowl commercials, the agency was looking dangerously old-fashioned in the new digital age. For Lubars, the BBDO job represented an opportunity to apply his boutique strategy to a global network and produce innovative work for clients on a mass scale. The boutique style was “fast, unlayered, innovative, pushing, evolving, constantly reinventing, not stuck in the same tropes. That’s what clients need. And creativity,” he describes. “We wanted to be a 21st century version of a kick-ass 60s New York agency.”
It didn’t take long for Lubars to produce attention-getting work at BBDO. In 2007, the agency introduced HBO “Voyeur,” a multi-media effort centered on a film observing the residents of a fictional apartment building. The film was projected on the side of a building to create the illusion that pedestrians were peeking into the lives of apartment dwellers in real life. The campaign, which continued the interconnected stories online, was one of the most awarded campaigns of the year. It was also the first big global creative validation that things were changing at BBDO.
Now nearly a decade later, the question whether BBDO can ever be known for anything but a superb TV commercial has more than effectively been answered. The work the agency has produced for longstanding showcase clients like GE and Snickers has demonstrated powerful ideas can be creatively expressed in any and all platforms available, from podcasts and web series to Snapchat stories and Facebook Live events. And the agency is producing stand out work for its clients around the globe. The agency’s six-year-old campaign for Snickers “You’re not you when you’re hungry,” which famously featured Betty White in a Super Bowl ad, has been executed in 87 countries and has been featured on various platforms. “We operate in different colors for different brands and different media,” describes Robertson.
The agency is perpetually evolving, but its dedication to its core mantra “The Work. The Work. The Work” remains unchanged. The idea is stay fluid to creatively innovative. “That’s my job, I keep stirring the concrete,” says Lubars. “Don’t let the cement dry.” The AT&T win of last year with Hearts & Science is driving another agency evolution that is seeing a new data-driven collaboration between media and creative, says Lubars. “Mass is not the answer. It’s precision,” he says. “It’s about finding the audience and giving them their own message at the right time. Yet there is a big idea that unites it all.”
During Lubars’ 13-year tenure, BDDO has won Network of the Year in Cannes six times, topped the Gunn Report 11 times and BBDO New York was named Agency of the Year more than 15 times by industry publications. Lubars has personally won more than 150 Cannes Lions and more than 150 Clio Awards.
While the idea of being honored for a lifetime of work is certainly appreciated, the very nature of a lifetime achievement award implies that the honoree’s best work is behind him. “He probably hasn’t done it yet,” notes Robertson. “It should be a partial lifetime achievement award.”