Early this month a very interesting book was released which caught my attention and really got me thinking. Named “Nobody’s Perfect: Bill Bernbach and the golden age of advertising” this book is written by Doris Willens, a former journalist who looked after the PR division of Bill Bernbach’s advertising agency DDB (Doyle Dale Bernbach) from 1966 to 1984. Twenty seven years after the death of Bernbach, here came a book which painted Bernbach as a blemished, insecure, person who leaned on others work. A man who I hold in very high esteem, a man who features at the number 1 position when it comes to drawing up a list of “Top 100 people of the century in the field of advertising” for he changed the course of advertising history- how could he be painted in such a bad light? Here was a man, who according to the author Doris Willens, was a devoted family man, unlike the many womanizing and boozing admen of those days (and even today!), was creative and disciplined. However, what interested her more were anecdotes of little or no relevance to the world of advertising- things like he recycled speeches, put one of his sons on the payroll unbeknownst to management and was frustrated over not being able to publish his own book. Ridiculous! The man has contributed so much to the business of advertising that these allegations seemed so petty. But they did have one positive influence on me- they made me go back to my old notes, my books to read and understand this genius and many more like him and rediscover the important lessons that their work has taught.


When advertising started there used to be someone who would write lines and then hand it over to someone else who put a picture or an illustration that matched those lines. Bernbach was the first to take a bold step and change this business of making ads. According to him “Advertising is the art of persuasion” and he cited an interesting study by “AAAA” which claimed that 85 percent of all advertisements were ignored by consumers. What was the use of businesses spending so much money when all it caused was boredom? One needed to persuade and persuade hard. This could be done only when every aspect of the advertisement spoke the same language. So he changed the process of making the advertisement. Everyone knew the rules of advertising but they lost it all by working independently. He made sure at every level of ad making the artist and the writer worked together. Now the artist could suggest a headline, the writer a visual and for the first time “art and copy” were integrated as one. Everyone was in sync with each other’s thoughts and the ads worked brilliantly. Now 1+1 equaled 3. DDB’s unique approach gave birth to many masterpieces in the 1950’s. A bargain department store in New York named Ohrbach’s had a small media budget but Bernbach and his agency created a masterpiece for them. His ad without once mentioning prices made an advertisement which gave a clear positioning to the store. The advertisement showed a man carrying a woman under his arm with a caption that read “Liberal Trade-In: bring in your wife and just a few dollars….. We will give you a new woman.” Another in the series showed a well tailored woman flanked by a man shattered into pieces with a caption that explained “clothes that make the woman without breaking the man”. It was a beautiful and relevant combination of “art” and “copy”. It is not surprising then that it’s in the list of the Top 10 advertising campaigns of the century and number 1 and number 10 have ads created by DDB. No one else could get 2 of their ads into the top 10. At number 1, you have the Volkswagen ad with the headline “Think small”, at number 10 is the very very famous advertisement of Avis which had the most iconic headline ‘We are no.2. We try harder”. It was these few words that altered the fortunes of both the companies forever. Bernbach not only made sure his agency did good work, but he ensured that no “good idea” got lost. A lot of people think up wonderful ideas but its rare to find an ad man who can recognize a great idea created by others. His creative philosophy was simple “…indulging in graphic acrobatics and verbal gymnastics is not being creative” you need to create something where every word, line, shadow, makes the ad more persuasive.
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