Thursday, September 07, 2006

Think Small

(continued from The Marlboro Man, see 8/15 below)

Bill Bernbach, a Jewish kid from the Bronx, graduated with a B.A. in English at NYU and then jumped at the chance to work for Schenley Industries as a mail clerk making $16 a week. He spent his free time creating concepts for Schenley advertising (which was not part of his job) and sent one to the distillery’s ad agency, Lord & Thomas. Bernbach was later surprised to open a newspaper and find his concept fully executed in a Schenley ad. He subsequently managed to retrieve the evidence of his idea by romancing a female file clerk at Lord & Thomas, and was moved from the mail room to the marketing and advertising department. There, Bernbach was noticed by Grover Whalen, the Chairman of the Board. For the next two years, Bernbach served as Whalen’s head speech writer, and eventually went with him to work for the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. And thus began the career of one of the most admired copywriters of all time.

How ironic it is that this nice Jewish boy -- who built his reputation at Jewish-owned Grey advertising, working on the Orbach’s department store business, then at Doyle Dane Bernbach (DDB), the agency he co-founded with Mac Dane (also Jewish) and Ned Doyle (Irish) in 1949, on accounts such as Levy’s bread (“You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s”), and El Al Airlines – how ironic it is that he achieved his company’s greatest fame from a campaign for Volkswagon, a car developed by the Nazis! Life is just too strange. You can’t make this stuff up.

As early as 1947, Bill Bernbach realized that his love affair with advertising would center around the development and execution of creative ideas. While at Grey, he felt stifled by Grey's increasingly research-dictated campaigns. In a famous letter to Grey management he wrote, “I'm worried...that we're going to worship techniques instead of substance...I don't want people who do the right things. I want people who do inspiring things. Let us prove to the world that good taste, good art, good writing can be good selling.”

Bernbach’s entry into the advertising world came at a time when the industry was turning away from big agencies, full-service operations and scientific research in favor of smallness, creative focus and artful intuition. While previous advertising practitioners wrote largely to the mind, Bernbach and his contemporaries introduced personal expression into their advertising. Bill Bernbach, Leo Burnett, and David Ogilvy are largely responsible for ushering in a period during the 1950's and 1960's that came to be known as the Creative Revolution.

While this movement was characterized by an anti-research sentiment, Bernbach did not simply discard the importance of understanding the consumer. He believed that the act of making ads drew more on gifts of intuition and inspiration than on quantitative research. “I consider research the major culprit in the advertising picture. It has done more to perpetuate creative mediocrity than any other factor,” he once said.

Bernbach believed that ads should convey an impression of honesty, using everyday language to communicate simple messages.

The 1950's was a decade of vast prosperity and the automobile came to symbolize the fantasies of Americans. Auto ads during this period tended to feature the beauty and engineering strength of the vehicle. Unfortunately, Volkswagen was known neither for its looks nor its technology. It was this challenge that DDB faced when the auto maker brought their advertising to them in 1959. Rather than joining the rest of the auto industry, Bernbach decided to beat them by creating ads based upon the same principles that drew people to Volkswagens in the first place: simplicity, honesty, uniqueness and humor.

It can be argued that Volkswagon was already on an upward curve when DDB took on the account. Volkswagon was what Seth Godin would today call a “purple cow”. Introduced in 1949, it had many years of good press behind it and by 1959 was already the number one import. But DDB’s “Think Small” campaign, among others, took that curve and knocked it out of the park for a home run.

Along with David Ogilvy, Leo Burnett and George Gribbin, Bernbach was one of the first inductees to the Copywriters Hall of Fame in 1961.

Here are a few selections of his words of wisdom:

“Advertising isn't a science, it's persuasion. And persuasion is an art.”

“There is no such thing as a good or a bad ad in isolation. What is good at one moment is bad at another. Research can trap you into the past.”

“Logic and over-analysis can immobilize and sterilize an idea. It's like love -- the more you analyze it, the faster it disappears.”

“It’s not just what you say that stirs people, it’s the way that you say it.”

“To succeed, an ad (or a persona or product, for that matter) must establish it's own unique personality, or it will never be noticed.”

“A great ad campaign will make a bad product fail faster. It will get more people to know it’s bad.”

“Playing it safe can be the most dangerous thing in the world, because you’re presenting people with an idea they’ve seen before, and you won’t have impact.”

“It is insight into human nature that is the key to the communicator’s skill. For whereas the writer is concerned with what he puts into his writings, the communicator is concerned with what the reader gets out of it. He therefore becomes a student of how people read or listen.”

“It took millions of years for man’s instincts to develop. It will take millions more for them to even vary. It is fashionable to talk about a changing man. A communicator must be concerned with obsessive drive to survive, to be admired, to succeed, to love, to take care of his own.”

“Word of mouth is the best medium of all.”

“The purpose of advertising is to sell. That is what the client is paying for and if that goal does not permeate every idea you get, every word you write, every picture you take, you are a phony and you ought to get out of the business.”

“Our job is to sell our clients' merchandise...not ourselves. Our job is to kill the cleverness that makes us shine instead of the product. Our job is to simplify, to tear away the unrelated, to pluck out the weeds that are smothering the product message.”

“Dullness won’t sell your product, but neither will irrelevant brilliance.”

“You cannot sell a man who isn’t listening.”

“Getting a product known isn’t the answer. Getting it wanted is the answer. Some of the best known product names have failed.”

“Most readers come away from their reading not with a clear, precise, detailed registration of its contents on their minds, but rather with a vague, misty idea which was formed as much by the pace, the proportions, the music of the writings as by the literal words themselves.”

“Nobody counts the number of ads you run; they just remember the impression you make.”

(to be continued…)

Sources and additional reading:

Shannon Weirtz, A Life In Advertising, The University of Texas at Austin, October 1998

DDB Worldwide Communications Group, Bill Bernbach Said…, 2002

Al Ries and Laura Ries, First do some great publicity: Building a brand takes more than a big burst of advertising dollars, Advertising Age, 2/8/99.