Two views of advertising legend Bill Bernbach

Doyle Dane Bernbach founder Bill Bernbach would have been 100 last week (he died in 1982 aged 71) and he’s often credited with the creative revolution of the 1960s, inspiring future generations of advertising people with his famous campaigns like ‘Lemon’ for Volkswagen’s Beetle and ‘We try harder’ for car rental firm Avis.

Arguably he had an even greater influence in the UK than on Madison Avenue. Agencies like Collett Dickenson Pearce, Boase Massimi Pollitt (now DDB) and the first manifestation of Saatchi & Saatchi were all highly influenced by Bernbach and DDB, similarly determined to wrench advertising away from its research-dominated, repetitive 1950s orthodoxy.

The conventional view of Bernbach is this from Mary Wells (one of the founders of Wells Rich Greene and just as famous in her day than Bernbach) from her autobiography A Big Life in Advertising.

In the fifties in New York if you talked about “Bill” you meant Bill Bernbach. He was the talk of the town because he was creating a revolution in the advertising business, which was a glamorous business at the time. He challenged all the big advertising agencies that had become important since World War II, saying they had killed advertising, ads had become dishonest, boring, insulting, even insane. Worse, they didn’t sell anything to anybody ……..He had galloped out of the Grey agency to set advertising free with a little gold mine of people: Ned Doyle, Mac Dane, Bob Gage and Phyllis Robinson. They opened an agency, Doyle Dane Bernbach, and set about changing the way advertising looked, what it said, how it sounded; they even felt free to change the product or the company that made the product if that was what it took to have a success. Bill gave lectures to the press. Radiating moral gravity, he would tell them that the big agencies had it all wrong: “Advertising is not a science, it is persuasion, and persuasion is an art, it is intuition that leads to discovery, to inspiration, it is the artist who is capable of making the consumer feel desire.”……..Taken in pieces Bill Bernbach wasn’t much. He was shorter than he sounded, he had a wary half-smile, cow’s-milk eyes, pale skin, soft shoulders, he seemed to be boneless, but he communicated such a powerful inner presence he mowed everybody around him down and out of sight. In his peak years many people were afraid of him. I was; I didn’t want to get too close. There was something volcanic, something unsettling going on; it was a little like being in the company of Mao or Che or the young Fidel.

A couple of years ago Doris Willens, a former PR director at DDB produced her own memoir Nobody’s Perfect and she had these things to say about Bernbach.

Pg. 44: “Presentations to potential clients were nothing more than Bernbach showing agency ads out of ‘the black box,’ a leather presentation case, and telling the story behind each. [Secretary Nancy Underwood] would stock the black box, selecting ads she deemed relevant to the advertiser’s business. Bernbach would ask her, when he picked up the case, what she’d put in this time.”

Pg. 51: “From Helmut Krone’s wastepaper basket, Bernbach fished wads of crumpled papers and beamed upon spreading open a sheet with the words, ‘We’re only Number Two. So we try harder.’ What did it matter if Bernbach did or did not write much beyond the headlines? To advertising history, it matters not at all. In attempting to understand Bernbach, it signifies.”

Pg. 86: “Trade reporters eventually stopped calling for advance copies of Bernbach’s speeches. They learned that none was ever available. When they attended and took notes, they realized that the material was familiar; whole segments were repeats from earlier speeches.”

Pg. 123: “Bernbach, as father, encouraged and developed the talents of his creatives, took credit for many of their accomplishments, felt devastated when they left him, and resented any implication of their outdoing him.”

Pg. 186: “Often, looking out on the spires of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, [Barry] Loughrane pondered the Gothic complexities within Doyle Dane Bernbach’s hallowed halls. What had Bernbach thought as he sat here, aware of his approaching death, yet attending not at all to the matter of a creative successor?”

All legends have feet of clay to a degree and there’s no doubt that Bill Bernbach, like his very different contemporary David Ogilvy who would also been 100 this year, polarised opinion.

But he made a huge contribution (with art director Helmut Krone) to advertising that sought to talk to people rather than talk at them. Ads that make you stop, look and listen.

Here’s the Bill and Helmut show with some wonderful stuff for Mobil and maybe DDB’s most famous commercial, ‘snowplough’ for Volkswagen.

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About Stephen Foster

Stephen is a former editor of Marketing Week and London Evening Standard advertising columnist. He wrote City Republic for Brand Republic and is a partner in communications consultancy The Editorial Partnership.