Why Bernbach Matters

Deep Influence

How Bernbach Changed Everything

By Keith Reinhard, Chairman Emeritus DDB Worldwide

If my boyhood dream was to find a life in advertising, my earliest idol was Bill Bernbach, the legendary founder of DDB. I used to tear out the pages of Life magazine that contained the great Volkswagen ads. I'd tape them to my wall and admire their simplicity, their unique tone of voice, their irony and wit. But even though I like to think of myself as a dreamer of big dreams and thought of one day heading the agency that changed advertising forever would have, even for me, qualified as an impossible dream.

Bill and I met only twice. We shared a belief in humanity, an impatience with the status quo, a penchant for worrying, a passion for excellence and a commitment to the ultimate power of creativity.

Bill and a small band of revolutionaries exploded onto the scene in the middle of the last century to set a new course for advertising. My vision was to take Bernbach's philosophy into the 21st century by creating a global organization now numbering some 15,000 people in 96 countries--a worldwide culture that embraces Bill's principles and seeks daily to apply them in a modern, multicultural world, in a media landscape that bears little resemblance to the one Bernbach knew. Helping to create that organization and leading it has been my life passion and it is enormously gratifying to travel the world and find Bill's photo, his quotations and his philosophy present in DDB agencies the world over. So when a reporter asked me in 1986, "Who will be the next Bernbach?" I said, "There will be 100 Bernbachs. They will have different names but they will be the creative leaders who come to DDB To embrace Bill's philosophies and build upon them, applying them in their own countries on behalf of clients everywhere.

How Bernbach Changed Everything

Bernbach's revolutionary ideas about creativity and his keen insights into human nature gave birth to modern advertising. Before Bernbach, the high priests of advertising believed in rules. They tried to turn advertising into a science: They were of the same mind as Sidney Greenstreet in the 1947 classic film about advertising The Hucksters, when he said that the best way to sell soap was to "irritate, irritate, irritate" -- the idea was to hammer the viewer into submission with commercials that irritated the consumer with overblown promises of "fast, fast, fast relief."

But Bernbach said, "I warn you against believing advertising is a science." And instead of hammering away, he won people over with humanity and good humor with spots like the famous "Mama Mia" Alka Seltzer one of the actor risking big time stomach upset by doing take after take of a spicy meatball commercial. In its time, it was revolutionary. Instead of lecturing, Bernbach engaged the viewer with a story everyone could identify with.

There were other great commercials including the famous "Funeral Cortege" commercial for Volkswagen narrated by the voice of the deceased reading his will and leaving very little to his wife and friends, and a significant fortune to his nephew, who was smart enough to drive a Volkswagen.