Inside the fabulously frenetic mind of BBDO's David Lubars

The global creative leader has been at BBDO for 15 years - and he still has much more to do.

Dec 10, 2019 04:44:00 AM | Article | Lindsay Stein

"I’m not really into the proud thing. I’m more into the paranoid thing."

With nearly too many Cannes Lions to count and a multitude of incredibly successful, long-running brand campaigns, that healthy sense of paranoia is a slice of what helps make David Lubars one of the most talented creative minds in the advertising industry.

His intensely active - often overactive - mind is another part of his genius. It’s also one of the traits that caught the eye of BBDO Worldwide President and CEO Andrew Robertson when looking to hire Lubars 15 years ago.

"He is just so restless," said Robertson. "The restlessness of always wanting to know what is happening next and never being satisfied with what’s on the table. That restlessness I found really, really appealing, and if you have that restlessness, you’ll never be out of touch with culture."

Lubars, chief creative officer of BBDO Worldwide and chairman of BBDO North America, also calls it as he sees it, which Robertson evidenced at the first lunch meeting they shared. Robertson, who was looking to hire the Brooklyn native at the time, asked to meet at Morrells Wine Bar & Cafe in Rockefeller Center. But it didn’t run quite as smoothly as planned.

"Firstly, I showed up to the lunch late," said Robertson. "Then needed to use a phone, but my battery was dead, so I asked to use his. Then tried to persuade him to come and join me at BBDO. And then I had forgotten my wallet, so he had to pay."

Finally, when the lunch wrapped, Robertson told Lubars he was going to use the bathroom before they left. "He said to me, ‘Do you need me to do that for you too?’"

From there, the Robertson-Lubars bond was formed, and the duo has been pitching business and creating iconic campaigns ever since.

From BMW Films to BBDO boomerang

Creativity seems to run in the Lubars family. David’s father, Walter Lubars, worked at Doyle Dane Bernbach and launched the memorable slogan, "The taste people hate, twice a day," for Listerine’s amber-colored product in the ‘70s. Walter Lubars went on to become dean of Boston University’s College of Communication and founder of AdLab

David Lubars was a history major at Boston University, and while he still loves history, he said he was afraid he’d be bored as a teacher. He went into journalism for a bit, but then caught a bug to do something that combined history, writing, comedy and the human condition. Enter: Advertising.

He went from an internship at a small creative shop after college to working at Cabot Advertising in Boston. In the mid ‘80s, Lubars worked at TBWA\Chiat\Day LA as group head, which led him eventually to his first stint at BBDO as CCO of the West in 1993. He eventually became CEO of BBDO West before leaving for Fallon in 1998.

During his time at Fallon, Lubars created one of his most well-known pieces of work - the series of BMW films called 'The Hire' starring Clive Owen. The series was awarded the first-ever Titanium Lion at Cannes, subsequently landing it as part of the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

So, what drew Lubars back to BBDO in 2004?

"The global international campus was hard to resist," he said. "I wanted to be nimble, boutique-edgy on a big canvas in a big New York company."

Lubars has been the mastermind behind a number of memorable global campaigns, but one, which Robertson calls "iconic," is still running successfully 10 years after its launch - Snickers’ "You’re Not You When You’re Hungry."

The spot, starring Betty White, aired during Super Bowl XLIV in 2010. Snickers was looking to grow globally through the campaign, and it did just that. In its first full year, the initiative helped increase global sales of Snickers by 15.9 percent and grew market share in 56 of the 58 markets in which it ran. And it also scooped up nearly every creative award that year, from Cannes Lions and The One Show to D&AD and the Emmys.

Robertson’s favorite part of "You’re Not You When You’re Hungry," aside from the fact that it’s still going strong, is where the idea came from.

"It was a line in a script that was being developed for a Super Bowl commercial, and Lubars read it and said, ‘This one line is way bigger than the ad itself,’ and that ended up being a truly global, 10-year campaign," said Robertson. "Not many people can say they’ve done that."

His work on Snickers is just one of many reasons why Lubars was honored with the Clio Lifetime Achievement Award in 2017. A few other noteworthy, award-winning creative pieces developed at BBDO under Lubars’ leadership include: "HBO Voyeur," a multimedia initiative that showcased various fictional, interconnected characters within a New York apartment block; "Meet Graham," a project created for Transport Accident Commission of Victoria to reveal what a human would have to look like to survive car crashes; and, of course, the massively popular, charmingly odd "Puppy Monkey Baby" spot for Mountain Dew, which is arguably one of the most buzzed about Super Bowl ads of all time.

And the list goes on and on.

"We honored David Lubars with the Clio Lifetime Achievement Award in 2017 because it was clear that it was his time," said Nicole Purcell, president of Clio. "Under his leadership as CCO, BBDO Worldwide had won Clio Network of the Year 5 out of 10 times in the decade leading up to the presentation of his award."

More recently, Lubars and his team at BBDO launched another harrowing PSA for The Sandy Hook Promise, aimed at sparking a tough conversation about the rise of mass shootings in the U.S. and how to prevent them.


Susan Credle, global chief creative officer of FCB, said she learned a number of things from Lubars during her time at BBDO, one of which is the importance of making decisions as a leader.

"We were working on a print layout one weekend and we were all a bit flummoxed about which direction to head. David looked around, chose one, then turned to us and said, ‘I don’t know if it’s the right decision, but we’ve made a decision and that feels pretty good, don’t you think?’" Credle told Campaign US.

She added: "Leaders need to make decisions. We need to keep things moving forward. Often you might not be 100 percent sure and that’s the point. Decide, and learn."

Lubars is also big on respect. One time, he went with his team to a big pitch at an undisclosed marketer’s office, and he was told by an assistant that the client would be out soon. Ten minutes went by, then 40 minutes.

"I opened the door and asked the assistant, ‘Do they know we’re here?’ No one came in to say, ‘Sorry,’ or ‘Can we get you a coffee?’ Nothing. Then when 50 minutes hit, I told the assistant that we were going to leave when it’s been an hour," said Lubars.

That hour came, and the BBDO team left. When he received a concerned call from the marketer later that day, Lubars said to the person, "You’re already a shit client and we haven't even met you yet."

BBDO pulled out of the pitch.

Lubars leaving that meeting room, however, is very in character for the creative, who BBDO New York CEO Kirsten Flanik says "gets bored very easily."

"He has Davidisms," said Flanik, who met Lubars at Fallon in 1998. For example, when he’s mentally checked out of a meeting, he’ll stand up and walk over to his computer and everyone knows the meeting is finished.

"My first impression of David was that he’s one of those people who never settled and never rested. He’s incredibly hyperactive and has a ‘get on with it’ personality, but he always empowers those around him," she said.

Flanik said Lubars was a "champion of me early on," giving her opportunities at a young age to have a seat at the table. Now, the pair has grown into a strong, incredibly equally partnership, she said.

Though, Lubars said that anyone - including Flanik and Robertson - who call him "restless" are just being nice. "They’re politely saying that if i was a kid in school today I would have a blow gun dart dipped in ritalin sticking out of my neck," he said.

He added: "If you don’t bring snacks to a meeting, you’re going to lose me. Bring M&Ms. I’m like a three-year-old, but it works."

Even with his frenetic mind, Flanik said Lubars is a great listener. Perhaps too good, having accidentally walked in on staffers doing impressions of him afterhours in the office several times. "Everybody can imitate David and he never thinks it’s good enough or ‘him’ enough," Flanik said.

When it comes to creativity, Lubars believes a good idea can come from anywhere and anyone. He’s all about collaboration and inclusivity, which points to one of the reasons why diversity has been a big focus of his at BBDO.

Lubars was aware of BBDO’s "boys’ club" image in the past, and has worked with Flanik and other agency leaders to help change that. He’s also active in a number of programs at the shop to drive more diversity in creativity in terms of people of color, members of the LGBT community and more.

"He knows that change requires focus and it has to be intentional, and we need to work hard and push for it," said Flanik.

Lubars and BBDO on the horizon

After 15 years at BBDO, Lubars still hangs on to his healthy paranoia; in fact, that’s one way he handles his creative demons.

"It’s about never settling," he said.

Music, specifically playing one of the several guitars in his office, is another way the creative chief clears his head. A lot of his best ideas have come from sub-thinking, he said, such as relaxing in the shower or when trying to fall asleep for a nap.

Going forward, Lubars wants to help the agency maintain its momentum and keep evolving.

When he first joined the Omnicom agency,  he said people could tell when an ad was made by BBDO because it had a certain style about it. Now, the work is bespoke and includes "all the creative colors our palette," said Lubars.

For Robertson - who endearingly refers to Lubars as his "work spouse" - the focus for BBDO in the immediate future is to equip itself as a network for the flip to addressable media. The agency wants to learn how to create, produce, measure and monitor in different ways that are more rewarding and valuable for both clients and target audiences.

Robertson said it’s difficult to make an exact plan for the future of the agency since formats and platforms change daily, but there’s one thing he’s sure about: "The magical ability to capture and hold an audience’s attention will always generate exceptional results, and that has to be the thing we focus on to get the most value for our clients."

With media being consumed everywhere within a couple of seconds, Flanik said creativity matters more than ever, but so does the context in which it’s delivered. Powerful marketing communication that evokes feeling and emotion is what will get people to interact with, notice and buy brands, she added.

The industry is constantly in flux and market needs are always shifting, but BBDO has learned to become comfortable with transformation.

"We used to be in a business where we were built on past successes - what made that work and how to apply that tomorrow and learn from that, but what you did yesterday doesn’t matter anymore," said Flanik.

And when it comes to adapting to change or strategizing a client brief or campaign idea, Lubars stays passionate by following a key phrase that everyone in adland should embrace: "Never let the cement harden."

A compilation of stories about the restless David Lubars

Gerry Graf, Chief Creative Officer, Founder, Barton F. Graf
This was like 10 years ago. Lubars was chairing a Cannes jury and he asked me to be on it. I had never judged Cannes before and I had only met him once ,so he set up a lunch so we could meet and talk. I get there first and sit at the table and he comes in a few minutes later. First thing he says to me after ‘Hi’ is… ‘Do you like me?’

I said, ‘I've only met you once before, but I think so.’ He starts going off saying, ‘You know, a lot of people don't like me. I don't get it, I'm a nice guy, but a lot of people don't like me.’ I'm like, Ok…

So, I go back to Saatchi and I talk to an art director and I tell him I want to make a t-shirt with Lubars' picture and the line ‘I Like Lubie.’ My sole intention was to make fun of him and his insecurities. Also, no one ever called him ‘Lubie.’ I made it up because I thought it would piss him off a bit.

I made t-shirts for the whole jury at Cannes and shipped them out there. We all wear the shirts to the press conference for the Grand Prix - except for one guy who refused. Lubars is out on the stage and introduces the jury and we all walk out with the t-shirts on. He had a weird look on his face. The international press started asking questions about the t-shirts. They don't even ask about the Grand Prix. I explained in front of everyone that David told me he didn't think people liked him, so I wanted him to know we did.

It kind of backfired on me though - I wanted to embarrass him, but he loved it. His mother even sent me an email thanking me for the support I gave her son and asked me to send her a t-shirt. And by the way, a few years later, David and I were talking about it and he was still bothered by the one guy who didn't wear the shirt.

Jason DeLand, Co-Founder, Anomaly
1997, I was an intern at BBDO West. They had the Apple business there. My internship was being a grunt on LA Cellular, but a few people gave me a shot at writing some print ads for Apple.  One evening I was at my desk and Mr Lubars comes walking by. He looked at the ads and said to me, ‘Well, I think you have a career in this business, but not as a copywriter.’

He said it with a smile. Good advice. Thanks, David.

Susan Credle, Global Chief Creative Officer, FCB Global
David gives nicknames to people. Mine is Spinney. It’s a long story. It’s always said with a wicked grin – the one he gets when he embraces his inner child. I love that grin.

I once saw David taking a phone call from a client. He wasn’t saying much, just nodding. "Yes…Uh–huh…Yes…Yes…" The call went on like that for about five minutes. Finally, he said, "What can I say, we f*cked up." No time spent defending whatever had happened. No time trying to explain or justify. He just owned up to whatever was happening on the other end of the line. It was a great lesson for me. You will make mistakes. You will get those phone calls. Handle it and move on.

Rob Reilly, Global Creative Chairman, McCann Worldgroup
I never worked for David. But I consider him a mentor because in my mind, he has done the job as a creative leader in the ways that I admire most.  Every agency he has led has ended up at the top. The work, over decades, has been iconic. And he is a grinder, never shying away from running into the fires. I don’t really have any funny stories.

Just a massive amount of respect.

Lauren Connelly, Creative Director, BBDO New York
What I’ve learned from David over the years is that there is no one more compassionate and concerned for people when they are sick or hurt than David. It’s as if you’re part of his family— and there isn’t anything he wouldn’t do to help you.

Most recently, I had surgery and he continued to offer various ways he could help and support whatever I needed. From finding the right specialist, to getting a ride to and from the hospital -  he kept brainstorming and volunteering new ways he could support me. Finally, when I said my parents would be coming in to town to help me, he pivoted from thinking about ways to help me to ways to help them - from rides to a place to stay to food - anything they needed while they were in New York. To David, BBDO is family.

Rob Buchner, CEO, Nomadic
This story is about EDS (Electronic Data Systems), later acquired by HP.

Following the Herding Cats Super Bowl acclaim the year prior, David and I boarded a 6 am flight for a presentation to EDS Chief Executive Dick Brown. Sitting next to one another on the flight, David turned to me as we hit altitude and asked for my set-up of the creative presentation. I said it's a CEO pitch, no powerpoint deck required. I talked David through my case for a follow-up Super Bowl investment. I talked. He doodled.

While in Brown's anteroom David grabbed a marker and put his cartoonish renderings of my thoughts to paper on a flip chart. Moments later we were escorted into Brown's office, easel papers rolled under my arms like the Dead Sea Scrolls. I unfurled them before Brown and stepped him through the set up. David then artfully sold the 60-second Super Bowl script for Building an Airplane on the fly.

Brown was humored by our audacity. The unabashed confidence of our hand-doodled, 10-minute recommendation for an $8 million all-in investment left him speechless. After a few seconds of awkward silence, he gave us the green light. That spot has become a common metaphor for start-ups. Little did we know how prescient the whole thing would be nearly 20 years later. That was a seminal moment in my career. My appetite for selling ethereal concepts in unconventional ways continues to this day. David instilled that in me.

Andrew Robertson, President and CEO, BBDO Worldwide
Peter Souter, who had been my creative partner in London, called David when he joined and gave him some advice. He said: Andrew is going to come to you on occasions with ideas for the creative. Very occasionally there will be something good. Mostly not. But when he comes with something lousy don’t try to explain why it’s so bad. Andrew is very persuasive and you’ll end up agreeing. Just say, ‘Interesting. Let me think about it.’ Then ignore it.

So these days when I do have my (usually terrible) ideas I preface it with: Here’s something for you to ignore.

(This article first appeared in Campaign US)