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Ad Astra: David Lubars and the Pyramid of Marbles


BBDO Worldwide’s CCO and chairman talks Miles Davis’ bebop phase, big ideas and the importance of letting go as he shares his creative philosophy with LBB’s Laura Swinton

Ad Astra: David Lubars and the Pyramid of Marbles

Ad Astra is LBB’s new interview series where we dive deep on creativity with the industry’s leading lights. 


“The core thing that will always be consistent is you need a big singular idea. That’s not some big amazing thing to say, but it’s true. Especially today.”

Advertising used to be quite a neat old business, reflects David Lubars. He wonders if the greats of yesteryear, accustomed to a fairly narrow and clearly defined array of creative outputs, would especially enjoy what the industry has become. Gone are the days of a lovely long-copy print ad and a bit of radio - a ‘defined horizon line’. In its place is what David calls a “a foggy mess, a big thick soup”. New possibilities appear, morph, disappear constantly. Culture fluctuates, platforms and channels come and go, and rapidly mutating technologies mean that creatives have to experiment with opportunities unimaginable just a couple of years ago. It takes a particular kind of personality to thrive in today’s environment, one that thrives on confusion and yearns for the stimulation of novel puzzles to solve. “You have to be comfortable with no landing area… you have to be OK in chaos,” says David. 

And he is.

But as much as has changed, the fundamentals of creativity endure. In fact, they’re more important than ever. With so much going on across so many touchpoints, new content demanded daily, even hourly in some cases, brands need something to tie it all together. Sometimes creatives need to step out of the tech and media vortex to have a good old think, just like they did in ages past.

“You need a big idea that connects these dots, or else it’s like a pyramid of marbles. What holds it together? The idea. Otherwise it’s a big scattered mess.”

Big ideas are something that David knows all about. As the chairman and chief creative officer at BBDO, the network behind huge ideas like ‘Womb Stories’ and Snickers’ ongoing crowd-pleaser ‘You’re Not You When You’re Hungry’, he’s seen more than a few in his time.

“You just feel it. It’s really visceral. When they showed me that line ‘You’re Not You When You’re  Hungry’, oh my God, I saw ten years’ worth of work. It was an insight that anybody on Earth would get. They didn’t need to explain it.”

When it comes to identifying these big, bendy, stretchy ideas that can run for years and accommodate an ever-changing array of executions, David maintains that it’s an instinct you either have or you don’t have. It’s a bit like music, which David simply swims in. He refers to a Keith Richards quote that describes rock and roll as ‘music for the neck downwards’ and another that’s been attributed to Duke Ellington that argues there’s only two kinds of music - the good kind and the bad kind. Though he supposes that gut instinct applies to all art. “I don’t know if you intellectualise a Picasso - you either feel it or you don’t.” 

That instinct even applies to identifying talent in others. David recalls immediately seeing the creativity radiating from Greg Hahn, the Mischief co-founder who spent 14 years at BBDO New York. Later, someone asked how he identified that Greg would be so great. “I didn’t want to hurt this person’s feelings, but I thought to myself, ‘how did you not?’.”

You have it or you don’t - and David has it. He’s had that creative instinct for as long as he can remember. As a child, he would make his own toys, even building his own Matchbox city for his toy cars when his parents decided that purchasing one probably wasn’t the best use of money. 

Back then David was immersed in creativity, so much so that it seemed unremarkable. His mother was a former dancer, his big sister a keen pianist who introduced him to all sorts of music at the tender age of five. While a young David dreamed of becoming a basketball player, or, if he was really lucky, riding on the back of garbage trucks, the world of creative advertising had already become commonplace. David’s father Walter was a writer whose catchy headlines had caught the eye of PR agency Burson-Marseller (these days BCW). And so he began working in the world of PR and advertising. In the school holidays, he’d take young David into the city for a morning sitting on the floor with marker pens followed by a father-son trip to the cinema in the afternoon. Walter would boast that he was listening to Ravi Shankar before The Beatles had ever heard of him - and his love of everything from classical music to Bob Dylan provided a foundation for David’s own eclectic music tastes (these days you might catch him listening to Thundercat, Moses Sumney or Margo Price - or dipping into his iPod packed with rare gems and jams).

Before the pull of advertising became too much to refuse, David meandered into a Bachelor’s of History, where he was particularly drawn to post-1917 American history, something that has given him a good foundation in the broader context in which his advertising sits. It’s also given him a birds-eye view of humanity’s more timeless qualities - which can be easy to forget in a time of rambunctious change. “People have always been amazing and disappointing.”

After history, David tried journalism. It turned out not to be quite the right route for him - after all there’s a limit to how creative a journalist can get when dealing with facts. But the training in tracking down the truth has proven to be invaluable. “The truth is the only thing that works in advertising,” he says.

When he did make his way to advertising, starting out with a stint at Boston agency Cabot before joining Leonard Monahan Saabye in Rhode Island as a copywriter, David may have had the creative instinct but he wasn’t necessarily acting on it. That gut feeling may be something you either have or you don’t have - but, he says, you do still need to proactively cultivate it.

“I always felt, when I started, that my peers were ahead of me. It’s not me being modest - they were. I was just tight,” says David, pulling a rictus grimace to convey the anxious tension of an over-serious younger self. “And then I had a breakthrough. Just: let it go. All of a sudden it started flowing.”

That breakthrough came from the most deceptively innocuous interaction. David recalls an older art director who had bought an expensive pair of shoes that had been so precious to him that he’d never wear them. But then, they’d gone out of style. “So, it was a waste - he was too tight to just enjoy it. And I’m like: ‘I’m him, and that pair of shoes is me being too tight’,” says David. It turned out to be a life-changing experience for David that unlocked his creative flow - though he reckons the art director wouldn’t remember it at all.

These days David embraces the flow states in which creativity flourishes. A keen basketball player, he likens it to the mental state of playing sport or music. Similarly, he also practises transcendental meditation, having been introduced to it by BBDO’s CEO and president Andrew Robertson. “It’s the only time you’re not in competition with yourself,” he says.

Another key lesson arose for David when he returned to the Leonard Monahan fold after time at Chiat Day (where he’d drunk in all he could from the Lee Clow orbit). This time, though, he was a partner and the agency was now Leonard Monahan Lubars & Kelly. The transition from jobbing creative director to partner and leader brought about a new appreciation for the realities of business and how it intersects with creativity, not to mention the challenges faced by clients.

“When you run a business and money has to come in and money goes out, you become kind of like a client, you understand their fears and anxieties. They’re laying in bed, staring at the ceiling, their shoulders hurt. Running a business was, I think, the biggest lesson to understand how the whole circular dynamics of economies work… and it made me think differently, creatively.”

It might seem that the responsibilities of running a business and the free-flowing, ‘let it go’ bohemiana of David’s approach to creativity are at odds with each other. Not so. David shrugs. He’s never perceived such a tension at all. Creativity’s function as an economic multiplier is self-evident. Putting the work first and allowing business success to follow is, in his view, a far sounder strategy than the reverse. After all, this is the network whose slogan is simply: The work. The work. The work.

That relationship between creativity and business is exemplified by the relationship at the top of the network. Andrew Robertson moved from AMV BBDO to BBDO North America in 2001, just three years before David joined BBDO in 2004, and the pair has formed a solid team, united in their understanding of creativity. David refers to Andrew as ‘the smartest non-creative side person I’ve met in the industry’, and he wracks his brain to figure out if he’s ever had a creative argument with him. He pauses to think hard for a few seconds. No. He doesn’t think they’ve ever disagreed. 

At a time when inflation is sending business costs and people’s cost of living soaring in markets around the world, where countries teeter on the rim of a will-it-won’t-it recession, the stakes are higher than ever for marketers and the pressure is on. In such an environment, creativity’s power to grow brands and business may be clouded out by fear - fear of the unknown or risk. 

But creativity as a risk is a position that David has no time for. “I hate risk. I never take risks. I hate risking wasting money on invisible stuff, and I hate risking that people won’t love my clients’ brands. I hate any kind of risk. There’s no risk in what we do. We present a logical argument of how to be noticed out there and loved,” he says. “What’s risky about that?”

Some may turn to data as a crutch for their misplaced fears and an excuse to turn away from creativity - but David sees it as a tool for yet more interesting creative executions. “Anybody that uses a roadmap believes in data,” says David. “So, you can look at the roadmap and then you can see that everybody went that way… and it’s the boring way and it’s not scenic…so we can go this way instead.”

The value of creativity to business, that’s something that BBDO’s most successful clients embrace and understand. Take Mars, the FMCG behemoth. BBDO has been responsible for business-boosting ideas like the M&M’s mascots, aforementioned ‘You’re Not You When You’re Hungry’, Maltesers’ groundbreaking work on disability out of the UK, and beloved creative for Mars’ petcare brands, like the ingenious global hit ‘SelfieSTIX’ for Pedigree, originating from Colenso BBDO in New Zealand. 

“Creativity is in Mars’ DNA. They know why they come here. Our brand’s pretty clear. They came for creativity, they understand creativity is an economics multiplier when applied the right way. It’s not like we have to hard sell them,” says David. He points out that the numbers that have come out of the most recent M&M’s campaign - a playful cancel-culture saga that saw the mascots ‘retired’ because of being too woke and which culminated at the Super Bowl - have been ‘extreme’.” 

Of course, a client may agree that creativity is a must, but, says David, the more nuanced question is, what is the ‘right’ creativity? “I always compare myself to a fine tailor. Maybe I wanna put you in a Prada suit, but you’re not comfortable wearing that suit, you want to wear something more conservative. So I’m going to put you in the best, most award-winning conservative suit that you’re going to be proud to wear and feel great about yourself. That’s the formula of a successful client-agency relationship.”

But whatever ‘the right creativity’ is, what it can’t be is mediocre. “So much of culture - books, movies, restaurants, music, your relatives - 95% are just mediocre. The drudgery. The few percentage points of magic… that’s what delights and that’s what people respond to. So why would they not do it in our industry as well? That’s why I believe that instead of injecting pollution into the culture, inject fresh, effervescent, beautiful air. That’s what’s effective.”

All of which takes us careering into the ‘is advertising art?’ discussion. It’s something that every creative has to confront sooner or later, when forming their own creative philosophy. From David’s perspective, the key difference between art and advertising is that, with art, the artist asks the question and answers it. “With us, the client asks the question and then we use art to answer it… but it’s not quite as pure, I guess,” he says. 

That’s not to say advertising can’t become art, or that we can’t learn from art. David reflects that the artists and musicians that most appeal to him are those who have distinct eras, which he likens to campaigns. He runs through Miles Davis’ genre-hopping journey through bebop, cool jazz, modal, funk and electronic, and points to James Brown and Bob Dylan. A trip to the Pompidou Centre in Paris brought David up close to the art of Gerhard Richter whose work moves from chapter to chapter.

The ‘pure’ creative of self-assured artists and musicians is a fun space to explore, but where self-indulgence is, arguably, a necessary component of art, it’s toxic for advertising - which is created not for the creator’s benefit but the client and consumer. David is in awe of those artists who have managed to combine both the uncompromising, singular vision with mass appeal. “Prince, and Joni Mitchell, and The Beatles, and Tom Petty… those are people who were purely creative and didn’t compromise anything and yet massed huge, cultural zeitgeist acceptance,” says David. “That’s hard to do - not to compromise and also be outrageously popular, which is what campaigns are supposed to do.”

The artist’s quest to express the qualia of human existence is also particularly instructive now, at a time when both the art world and the advertising world are trying to figure out what the current surge of generative artificial intelligence means for them. 

“The thing is, the reason there’s art and poetry and music and movies is because it’s hard to express the human condition. The best way you can do it is probably through art or artistic treatments. Today it can’t do that. Maybe down the road… who knows? How does it feel? How does it know what heartbreak is? Or grief? Maybe someday it can but right now, what it’s great at is supporting your creative feeling and backing it up with stuff that makes it credible.”

Artificial intelligence has supercharged agencies’ ability to personalise and adapt content, to put out not dozens of executions but hundreds, potentially, millions. All of which just makes that pyramid of marbles even bigger. Without the big idea to hold it all together, all we end up with is a noisy, annoying, clattering downfall of marbles, rolling treacherously underfoot and causing the pollution that David says we should avoid at all costs. 

And nor should we get distracted by a future that may never come. David has no time for so-called futurists - five years ago could they have predicted the future we’re in today? Bringing together the timelessness and timeliness of creativity, requires a constant, restless, dynamic sense of balance, surfing the constant choppy waters of change with a strong core of the basics of creativity.

“My job is to see what’s going on and be constantly stirring the cement,” says David, a favourite phrase of his. “Don’t let the cement harden you into a block - the world will leave you behind. It’s messy, but at least you can flow the way the world and clients need you to, in ways you can’t predict.

“And a big idea lets you do that.”

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LBB Editorial, Mon, 13 Mar 2023 19:05:49 GMT