Unfair advantage

It’s 1949 and Bill Bernbach is the creative director at Grey Advertising in New York.

Bernbach has seen the agency double down on business at the expense of creativity, and he’s had enough. So he walks out of the agency with 13 people and one account - Ohrbach department store - to launch Doyle Dane Bernbach at 350 Madison Avenue.

In those days there were two schools of thought about advertising. David Ogilvy, who started his agency a year before Bernbach, believes advertising is a science that relies on formula. For Bernbach, advertising is an art that relies on form. For Bernbach, creativity is the be-all and end-all. Memorable never emerged from a formula.

Some of Bernbach’s most notable campaigns were “We try harder” for Avis, “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s” for Levy’s Rye Bread, and famously “Think small” for Volkswagen.

Bernbach’s work on Volkswagen transformed advertising forever. Advertising Age named it the greatest campaign of the 20th century. The ad was created as the 60s counterculture - with its rejection of the establishment and abundant consumerism - started emerging. The Volkswagen Beetle became a symbol of that time.

Just stop and think about that for a moment. A good Jewish boy from a good Jewish family turned Adolph Hitler’s Volkswagen into a best-selling car in the land of the free, home of the brave. After WWII with all its attendant horrors, Bernbach turned the people’s car of Nazi Germany into an iconic piece of American pride. Amazing.

Bernbach pioneered the idea of creative teams by teaming up writers and art directors to work together. Before then, writers wrote ads first in a separate department and then handed them to art directors in another department to devise the layout and design.

The “Think small” campaign was created by writer Julian Koenig and art director Helmut Krone. Koenig never met a full stop he didn’t like. And Krone was incapable of making an ad look like an ad.

The text of the first “Think small” ad was minimalist, presenting the facts simply but with an intelligent sense of humor that made readers feel like they were in on the joke. The art direction broke all the rules, from the idiosyncratic sans serif font, to placing a full stop at the end of the headline which forced the reader to stop and think about what they had just read. (A technique copied by many agencies and instituted by brands like Apple and Nike.)

Krone hated using logos in his ads. Some of his other well-known campaigns such as those for Avis didn’t even have a logo. In the first “Think small” ad the logo was set in an unexpected place, between the columns, so it too reinforced the idea that it’s no ordinary ad, no ordinary car, no ordinary proposition. The car was shot in black and white which created a stark and striking effect when it appeared among the colorful pages of Life Magazine.

Before Bernbach, the advertising produced out of Madison Avenue was Ivy League and WASP. Bernbach promoted greater diversity not just in the ads but also with the people he hired – Jews, Italians, Irish, Greeks, everyone. Doyle Dane Bernbach became defined by ethnicity. 

And he mentored many women like Phyllis Robinson, who was the first copy chief of the agency, Paula Green, Diane Rothschild and Mary Wells.

In a world where we’re drowning in data and analytics, it’s good to be reminded that advertising is still a business of great ideas.

Where good taste, good art and good writing is good business.

Where creativity is the last unfair advantage.

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