Defining moments in advertising: Bernbach and his letters

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Dear ___________:

Our agency is getting big. That’s something to be happy about. But it’s something to worry about, too, and I don’t mind telling you I’m damned worried. I’m worried that we’re going to fall into the trap of bigness, that we’re going to worship techniques instead of substance, that we’re going to follow history instead of making it, that we’re going to be drowned by superficialities instead of buoyed up by solid fundamentals. I’m worried lest hardening of the creative arteries begin to set in.

There are a lot of great technicians in advertising. And unfortunately they talk the best game. They know all the rules. They can tell you that people in an ad will get you greater readership. They can tell you that a sentence should be this sort or that long. They can tell you that body copy should be broken up for easier reading. They can give you fact after fact after fact. They are the scientists of advertising. But there’s one little rub. Advertising is fundamentally persuasion and persuasion happens to be not a science, but an art.

It’s that creative spark that I’m so jealous of for our agency and that I am so desperately fearful of losing. I don’t want academicians. I don’t want scientists. I don’t want people who do the right things. I want people who do inspiring things.

In the past year I must have interviewed about 80 people – writers and artists. Many of them were from the so-called giants of the agency field. It was appalling to see how few of these people were genuinely creative. Sure, they had advertising know-how. Yes, they were up on advertising technique.

But look beneath the technique and what did you find? A sameness, a mental weariness, a mediocrity of ideas. But they could defend every ad on the basis that it obeyed the rules of advertising. It was like worshiping a ritual instead of the God.

All this is not to say that technique is unimportant. Superior technical skill will man a good man better. But the danger is a preoccupation with technical skill or the mistaking of technical skill for creative ability.

The danger lies in the temptation to buy routinized men who have a formula for advertising.  The danger lies In the natural tendency to go after tried-and-true talent that will not make us stand out in competition but rather make us look like all the others.

If we are to advance we must emerge as a distinctive personality. We must develop our own philosophy and not have the advertising philosophy of others imposed on us.

Let us blaze new trails. Let us prove to the world that good taste, good art, and good writing can be good selling.

Bill Bernbach

Excerpted from “Bill Bernbach’s Book: A History of Advertising That Changed the History Advertising” © by Evelyn Bernbach and Bob Levenson. Courtsey: Branding Strategy Insider

The above letter was written by Bill Bernbach to the owners of Grey Advertising where he worked, in May, 1947.  Why am I reproducing this? One, to remind myself of the true nature of our business. Two, to look back at ‘defining moments in advertising’ (through a series of such posts) and learn from them.

Bill Bernbach set on a journey of his own, being the catalyst for the creative revolution to follow. He had strong views on creativity, research and all aspects of advertising.

Product: “Advertising doesn’t create a product advantage. It can only convey it”.

Future of advertising: Shortly before he died he was aked about the advertising in the ’80s – ‘Human nature hasn’t changed for a billion years. It won’t even vary in the next billion years. Only the superficial things have changed. It is fashionable to talk about changing man. A communicator must be concerned with unchanging man – what compulsions drive him, what instincts dominate his every action, even though his language too often camouflages what really motivates him. For if you know these things about a man, you can touch him at the core of his being. One thing is unchangingly sure. The creative man with an insight into human nature, with the artistry to touch and move people, will succeed. Without them he will fail.”

Logic: “the brain is not an instrument of logic at all. It is an organ of survival, like fangs and claws. So the brain doesn’t search for truth, it searches for advantage”. Bernbach regarded logic and over-analysis as obstacles against creative ideas, “Logic and over-analysis can immobilize and sterilize an idea. It’s like love – the more you analyze it, the faster it disappears.”

Family guy: David Ogilvy explained well about Bernbach’s separation of work and family. “He was a philosopher. He lived without ostentation, and organized his time with a self-discipline that is rare among heads of agencies. He once told me that he never stayed in the office after five, never took work at home, and never worked at weekends. ‘You see, David, I love my family’”.

Phew. Words that ring true even today.

vw05 DDB started in 1949 and Ohrbach, a departmental store was their first client. They turned the brand from an unfashionable one to ‘high fashion at low prices’ boutique. He then broadened the target audience of a Jewish rye-maker’s market to include non-Jews with the “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s” campaign. The two his famous campaigns are for Avis and Volkswagen. In 1962, Hertz was the undisputed market leader in the car rental business. Bernbach turned their market dominance into a weakness by appealing to the consumer’s emotions towards an underdog who deserves more. Apparently, Bernbach urged the owners of Avis to overhaul their products & services prior to the launch of the campaign saying,  “It’s always a mistake to make good advertising for a bad product.” And the most famous, of course was Volkswagen. It’s self-deprecating wit and focus on the car as the hero, conveyed the brand to be honest, simple, reliable, different and above all, lovable. Even six decades later it is regarded as harbinger of the creative revolution.

You can view some of his work here. While this post may sound pedantic and a mere repetition of what someone else said, reading about legends like Bernbach and re-visiting their work can inspire us to get better at what we do today. Which fundamentally has not changed since his time. The methods may have. Comments?

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