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Creative heavyweight David Lubars to hang up his gloves after 42 years and 600 Lions


By Kendra Barnett, Associate Editor

April 11, 2024 | 13 min read

BBDO’s chief creative, who made a mark in the advertising world with memorable, culturally resonant campaigns like Snickers’ ‘You’re Not You When You’re Hungry,’ is ready to stop moving at the speed of light.

David Lubars standing on the street in New York City

Lubars Creative heavyweight David Lubars to hang up his gloves after 42 years in adland – and 600+ Cannes Lions BBDO’s chief cr / BBDO

David Lubars’ reputation for restlessness precedes him.

In 2004, when Lubars was named chief creative officer at BBDO, New York Magazine described him as “a Beat poet … trapped for years in button-downs and khakis,” noting that he “gets impatient easily.” A profile in Campaign from 2019 raves about his “fabulously frenetic mind.”

Lubars himself doesn’t seem to mind the quirky qualifiers (“If I was a kid in school today, there would be, like, a blow dart hanging out on my neck that was dipped in Ritalin,” he jokes at a recent meeting at BBDO’s global headquarters in New York).

In fact, he credits much of his professional success – in a career that’s spanned four and a half decades – to this essential buzziness in his character. When he graduated from Boston University’s College of Communication in 1980, he says, he was intimidated by his peers’ sharpness as they competed over the same jobs, but soon found that, in his words, “the crazy, hyper, ADD, workaholic-ness is what kind of pushed me ahead.”

In spite of his nature, Lubars is finally slowing his pace. The exec will retire from BBDO at the end of this year, two decades after taking the reins as the agency’s global chief creative officer.

Chris Beresford-Hill, who last December left Ogilvy to become chief creative officer of BBDO The Americas, will succeed Lubars to head up the firm’s global creative practice.

When asked about what he plans to do with his newfound free time, Lubars muses: “Well, the first day, I'm going to do nothing. And then after that, I'm going to rest.” Recently, he says he’s been reading about what retirement from a high-stakes career should look like. Experts suggest that “for the first couple of months, you shouldn't do anything, and don't make any decisions,” he explains. “You’ve got to, like, just decompress.”

Lubars’ retirement will mark the end of an illustrious career in commercial creativity that has produced some 600-plus Cannes Lions, including, in 2020, the coveted award for the Network of the Decade.

“Based on the work alone, David has a place on advertising’s Mount Rushmore,” Beresford-Hill said in a statement shared with The Drum. “If you’ve been fortunate enough to work with him, you’d probably also consider him the most reductive, decisive and supportive creative leader in the world.”

For Lubars, creativity has always been a driving force. As a child, he loved to build – he recalls constructing his own matchbox car cities instead of buying premade kits. “I was always making things,” he says.

His father, who worked in magazine publishing and PR before eventually entering the world of advertising at DDB – and who went on to serve as dean of Boston University’s College of Communication and founder of AdLab – further appealed to Lubars’ creative sensibilities.

“I’d go on school holidays with him to work, and he’d sit me on the floor with a pad of magic markers. It seemed like a cool way to make a living and have fun,” Lubars says. The whole place, he recalls, was crawling with “interesting, cool people.“ As a result, he says he “kind of caught the bug early.”

Over the course of his career, Lubars says he’s worked with countless inspiring leaders, colleagues and partners. But he still credits his father for playing the most influential role in his professional success. “Without sounding too sentimental, my dad [impacted me most], because he was my first [exposure to the idea that] this is a cool thing to do. And he was good at it. And he was a really good teacher.”

After graduating from Boston University, Lubars took a job as a copywriter at Leonard Monahan Saabye in Rhode Island, one of the most influential agencies of the 1980s, before moving to LA to work on the Apple account at Chiat/Day. In 1988, he returned to Leonard Monahan as a partner; the firm was subsequently renamed Leonard Monahan Lubars & Kelly (though it has since shuttered).

Seven years after taking that post, Lubars joined BBDO West as its chief executive officer – a role he held for five years before departing in 1998 for the top creative job at Fallon in Minneapolis.

At Fallon, he produced some of his best-known work, including a series of iconic films for BMW starring Clive Owen, which bagged Cannes’ inaugural Titanium Lion in 2003 and went on to become part of the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

The next year, BBDO’s global president and chief executive, Andrew Robertson, coaxed Lubars back to BBDO. At the time, Robertson told The New York Times, “'The future of our business rests in us creating the most compelling creative content in the world in all of the touch points consumers have.”

In his 20-year stint at BBDO Worldwide, Lubars has produced a handful of the industry’s most impactful ad campaigns. Chief among them is Snickers’ iconic ‘You’re Not You When You’re Hungry’ campaign, which has been running continuously since it launched at Super Bowl XLIV in 2010.

“The fulfilling projects are the ones that solved really tough problems – and then [just so happened to] become famous,” he says.

Snickers is one such effort, as is GE’s ‘Imagination at Work,’ which was designed to help the conglomerate recruit talent by dispelling the myth that the company was a “big steel-and-glass, staid, conservative company,” Lubars says.

Another is the titillating, multimedia ‘HBO Voyeur’ project of 2007. It’s a campaign that Lubars says helped solve a key challenge: engaging fans at a time when programming felt lackluster and many of the network’s top shows, like The Sopranos and Sex and the City, had ended their runs. “They had a bunch of new shows that were not landing … and they were preparing the next round of shows, which ended up being Game of Thrones and some other [big hits],” Lubars says. “But in between, what do we do?”

Lubars and the team at BBDO took the concept of voyeurism – a core psychological element of television consumption – and dialed it up, using the consumer’s gaze as the ultimate vehicle for engagement. The multimedia campaign kicked off with a larger-than-life projection on the side of a building in lower Manhattan, inviting passersby to peer inside the lives of various characters inside of eight fictional apartments. The stories, told over the course of three films, were cut up and sprinkled across microsites, on social media, in physical playbills and more.

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“‘Voyeur’ was content that made HBO still seem cool, and part of the culture, while they were waiting to actually get there,” Lubars says.

At the heart of Lubars’ drive is a fundamental conviction about the power of effective storytelling. Lubars points to French-Swiss New Wave filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard, who once said, “Sometimes reality is too complex. Stories give it form.”

“If you look at human history … everybody responds to a story well-told that has compelling characters, that has a plot you can relate to, that’s populist – everybody can see themselves in it, that has some kind of social commentary,” Lubars says. “It could be the Bible, it could be a Tarantino movie, it could be a Hemingway novel.” For Lubars personally, music has always been a source of inspiration. He consistently drinks his morning coffee from a Beatles mug.

In the Lubars school of thought, effective brand stories need to start with what he calls “a big idea” – like the simple concept that, well, you’re not yourself when you’re hungry. “With all the mediums and all the channels available today, you need a big idea, a story idea, more than ever,” he says. “There’s so many bits … so if you don't have something holding it [together] – a big idea – it just scatters, and it’s a bunch of unrelated [pieces] … and people don't understand what you’re about.”

Despite his natural creative instincts, Lubars believes that achieving success in a field like advertising requires considerable discipline. “There has to be an innate ability there,” he says, “But the learning is how to channel it into something usable. When I was younger, I worked with people who are crazily creative, but it didn't go through the arms onto the keyboard, onto a screen, to a place where you could look at it and go, ‘We could use that.’ That part has to be learned – the rigor and discipline of making a super creative idea into something that works.”

During his tenure in adland, it would seem Lubars truly mastered the marriage of sheer creative energy with regimen. And ultimately, Lubars sees his greatest creative strength not in his award-winning copywriting, but in his ability to teach this same practice to those around him – to help other creatives marry their ambitions with discipline and to transform seeds of great ideas into living, breathing, viable concepts.

“Without being falsely modest or coy, I think I was an A-minus writer. And an A-minus can win a lot of awards, because most people are C-minus because they don’t do the crazy work that it takes to get good,” he says. “I was doing well and winning a lot of awards, and people who are A-plus were not.” Being an ‘A-plus’ copywriter or creative, he says, is rare – but doesn’t guarantee success, because sheer talent must be paired with discipline. “I realized that my best talent is that I could help them. And that’s how we’ve done a lot of A-plus work, because I was surrounding myself with A-plus people who just needed help. That's kind of been my job.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by BBDO chief Andrew Robertson. “There’s no question that David is one of the world’s most talented writers, but his real gifts are his ability to catch ideas and see the potential in other people’s work, then to help them take it from good to great,” he said in a statement today. “That’s why so many amazingly talented people have wanted to work with him, both in New York and across our network.”

Sitting in his office in Midtown Manhattan – surrounded by hundreds of reflective Cannes Lions and One Show pencils, as well as seven Emmy awards – Lubars doesn't seem overly concerned about his legacy in adland.

“I’m basically an introvert who trained himself to be an extrovert, but not [fully]. That’s why you don't see a lot of me on social media – I’m private. You don't need to see my frickin’ dog or my kids. So I guess I would like to have people think, ‘Oh, we didn't know much about that guy, but he had a lot of good work, and he was okay to be around – not an asshole.’”

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