Why Bernbach Matters

Deep Influence

Working for Mr. Bernbach

By Bob Kuperman, Former President and Chief Executive Officer DDB New York

My first meeting (if you could call it that) with Bill Bernbach was in an elevator. He said: "Hello." I mumbled a weak "Hello, Mr Bernbach" in return.

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I was 22 years old, fresh out of art school and had been at Doyle Dane Bernbach for one month. It was 1963, and by then most of the first shots of what became known as the "creative revolution" had been fired - mostly by Bernbach and his troops.

Bernbach was leading the agency by roaming the halls and dashing in and out of art directors' and writers' offices, but hadn't yet made it back to where the Young Turks - such as myself - sat, slaving over glue pots and pasting ads together. So this encounter in the elevator terrified me.

After all, this was Bill Bernbach: the Bernbach that everyone in the agency constantly talked about and whose approval was all that mattered to every art director and writer at DDB.

Selling work and winning creative awards paled in the face of being able to say: "We showed the ad to Bill and he liked it."

"Bill liked it" were the three most important words in the world to a creative person.

For a year after, my exposure to Bernbach was limited to the halls, elevators and DDB Christmas party at the Waldorf Astoria.

One day, when I was a junior art director and in one of my rages over an ad that was killed by a client, I announced to the account executive: "I am going to see Bernbach. I've had enough of this client." And before I could stop myself, there I was sitting outside his office, next to his long-time secretary Nancy Underwood, and shaking like a leaf. To my amazement, the man sitting behind the round table spoke to me more like a caring grandfather than like the mythical figure I was in such a nervous state about meeting. He was patient, listened, looked at the ad and gave me some ideas for improvement. Before I knew it, I was back downstairs working on a new ad.

It was like a dream. Did I really just have a meeting with Bernbach? I went storming up there like a self- entitled creative brat and he treated me with respect and kindness. He took the time to listen to a young, egotistical kid from Brooklyn with an accent that made English sound like his second language. He provided me with lifelong inspiration and confidence by telling me that I was one of the young talents in the agency and he was expecting big things from me.

As the years passed, my relationship with Bernbach changed. I became more comfortable in his presence, but it was always clear that he was the teacher and I remained the student. He repeatedly asked me to call him "Bill", and my reply was always the same: "Mr Bernbach, I can't call you anything but Mr Bernbach." He'd laugh and we'd go on with whatever we were talking about.

I discovered things about him that I certainly didn't expect. If you presented to him and he didn't like a particular ad in a campaign, he simply ignored it. He would never address why he didn't like it, or why it didn't work - he just ignored it.

I learned this the hard way in a meeting with Bob Gage. We were showing Bernbach five new ads and I noted that there was one ad that he hadn't said a word about. I did this several times and, on the final try, I received a swift kick under the table from Gage. As we were leaving his office, Gage whispered to me: "If he doesn't talk about it, he doesn't like it." If Bill suggested a line for an ad, it was more than just a suggestion.

I learned little things about him - such as how he was a fastidious dresser and only wore blue shirts because someone once told him he looked best in them, plus they photograph well. On a trip with him to Chicago, I found he, like me, was a "white-knuckle flyer", and that every once in a while he spoke above a whisper. While I still adored him, I started to see that he wasn't perfect. I think this made most of us who worked for him love him even more. He was human and had faults - just like the rest of us.

My relationship with Bernbach became one of the most important in my life. To this day, it's hard for me to talk about him without tears welling up in my eyes.I still have the note he took the time to write to me when I left DDB in 1971. His ideas about the business have been my guiding principles. He pointed out that we are not in the communication business (as many thought then and still think today), but in the persuasion business.

That persuasion is not a science, it's an art.

Research, customer insight and product information may tell us what to say in an ad, but it is how you say it that really matters, and that has never more been true than today.

How you say it takes talent, and figuring out how to say it in the most impactful and effective way takes special talent.

This is what I, and every art director and writer then and now, owe Bernbach.
He made talent count. He made the business one where wit, intelligence and artistry not only mattered but were essential to succeed. He gave us and the world a different view of what we did every day for a living.

He called it the "aesthetic choice". Even though I worked for greats such as Carl Ally, Mary Wells and Jay Chiat, I never really stopped working for one man: Bill Bernbach.

This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk, August 4, 2011