Bill Bernbach and the beginning

Even in the age of digital, social, and utility, advertising students should know who Bill Bernbach was.


Advertising as we know it, or at least as we celebrate it, began in 1949 when Bill Bernbach and Ned Doyle quit Grey Advertising and joined Mac Dane to create Doyle Dane Bernbach. Their agency was an act of defiance, an outright rejection of the industry’s prevailing wisdom that success was determined by the size of the headline or the prominence of a perfect product photo. As far as Bill Bernbach was concerned, those proclamations, attributed to men such as Rosser Reeves and David Ogilvy were irrelevant to the times.

Bernbach believed that advertising was art rather than a science. “It’s not just what you say that stirs people. It’s the way that you say it.”

Sixty-plus years have passed since Bernbach changed the industry. He put creative front and center, making it the most important department in the agency. He placed writers and art directors in the same room — a first for the industry — and had them work as teams to conceive witty, intelligent — and most importantly — honest concepts. He valued wit, humor and the perspective of the previously marginalized: Jews, Blacks, women.

Today, in the age of the web, social media, and participation, the influence of the industry’s greatest message maker can still be felt. Bernbach was fond of saying that “word of mouth is the best medium of all.” Today we may do that with Twitter and Facebook, but the ideas that we talk about, share and pass on, still share many of the same qualities that Bill Bernbach introduced to the industry years ago.

“Principles endure, formulas don’t. You must get attention to your ad. This is a principle that will always be true. How you get attention is an ever-changing thing. What is attractive one day may be dull the next.”

Bernbach may not have been able to predict the tumultuous changes of the last decade, but his wisdom has certainly withstood those changes.

Every student or practitioner of advertising should know who Bill Bernbach was and how his ideas shaped and continue to shape this industry.

Some of his great quotes. Mini-lessons in themselves.

On insight

“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 changing man. A communicator must be concerned with unchanging man, with his obsessive drive to survive, to be admired, to succeed, to love, to take care of his own.”

“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.”

“At the heart of an effective creative philosophy is the belief that nothing is so powerful as an insight into human nature, what compulsions drive a man, what instincts dominate his action, even though his language so often camouflages what really motivates him.”

On creativity

“However much we would like advertising to be a science-because life would be simpler that way-the fact is that it is not. It is a subtle, ever-changing art, defying formularization, flowering on freshness and withering on imitation; where what was effective one day, for that very reason, will not be effective the next, because it has lost the maximum impact of originality.”

“Working from a method or a formula is guaranteed to do the same thing to the effectiveness of an idea that time does to a loaf of bread. Ideas must be hot out of the oven if they are to arouse the appetite. That is why, in communications, imitation is commercial suicide.”

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

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

On creativity for creativity sake

“Merely to let your imagination run riot, to dream unrelated dreams, to indulge in graphic acrobatics and verbal gymnastics in NOT being creative. The creative person has harnessed his imagination. He has disciplined it so that every thought, every idea, every word he puts down, every line he draws, every light and shadow in every photograph he takes, makes more vivid, more believable, more persuasive the original theme or product advantage he has decided he must convey.”

On research

“We are so busy measuring public opinion that we forget we can mold it. We are so busy listening to statistics we forget we can create them.

“We don’t ask research to do what it was never meant to do, and that is to get an idea.”

On attention

“Be provocative. But be sure your provocativeness stems from your product. You are NOT right if in your ad you stand a man on his head JUST to get attention. You ARE right if you have him on his head to show how your product keeps things from falling out of his pockets.”

On knowing your product

“You’ve got to live with your product. You’ve got to get steeped in it. You’ve got to get saturated with it. You must get to the heart of it. Indeed, if you have not crystallized into a single purpose, a single theme, what you want to tell the reader, you CANNOT be creative.”

On conveying a feeling

“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.”

On taking a stand

“If you stand for something, you will always find some people for you and some against you. If you stand for nothing, you will find nobody against you, and nobody for you.”

On staying current

“To keep your ads fresh you’ve got to keep yourself fresh. Live in the current idiom and you will create in it. If you follow and enjoy and are excited by the new trails in art, in writing, in industry, in personal relationships…whatever you do will naturally be of today.”

DDB Avis ad.
Perhaps the most famous ad of all time.
Remarkable how contemporary this is. No headline or logo. Story in a single image. And…nerd gets the girls. Tech is better than brawn.