Then We Set His Hair on Fire: Insights and Accidents from a Hall-of-Fame Career in Advertising

By Phil Dusenberry
Portfolio, 2005
304 pages, $24.95

Phil Dusenberry is the former chairman and chief creative officer of the advertising agency BBDO, the flagship of the Omnicom media empire. The title of his new book is derived from the notorious film shoot for Pepsi-Cola starring Michael Jackson, when a flame leapt from a special effects firework to set the pop idol’s hair alight. Jackson came away with minor burns; Pepsi reaped a huge bonus from the attendant publicity.

The book is about insights in business — how to get them, how to recognize them, and how to keep them coming. For Mr. Dusenberry, insight is the pivotal mediator in what he calls the “linear matrix” of research, analysis, insight, strategy, and execution (RAISE for short). Insights are powerful understandings that generate ideas for action, which allow products to stand out in what the author calls a “parity economy” — an economy in which most products are regarded as much the same. And that’s where insights come in, often from unexpected places. BBDO believes, for example, that customers are most candid about their feelings when they are complaining about a product or service, and thus complaints are a fertile source of insights. Insights often require in-depth research. In England, a research assistant sat in a café for five days, eavesdropping on the conversations of young women, and discovered that they were deterred from smoking by appeals to their vanity — worries that their faces might wrinkle — rather than by any concerns about their health. This kind of research, applied common sense, need not cost a lot of money; it can be done by anyone, and the payoffs can be huge.

If advertising is to “move the needle” — to make a real difference — it demands a marriage of logic and emotion: research and analysis to uncover the truth, and emotion to express it in a compelling way. Insight is the go-between in this relationship. The final chapter of the book contains 18 guidelines (not rules) for creative directors on how to build and sustain an insight-generating machine. None of them are new and many have been expressed before by advertising legends like David Ogilvy, but the fact that they bear repeating here underlines how difficult it can be to follow them in practice.

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