Why Bernbach Matters

Deep Influence

Working with a Legend

By Bob Levenson, Former Creative Director & Chairman DDB International

Bill Bernbach had the nerve and the wit to hire me in 1959. Some years later, I had the nerve and the wit to hire Bob Kuperman. Neither event made any headlines. Typically, people made headlines when they left Doyle Dane Bernbach, not when they got hired.

Bernbach's Group_sm.jpgWhat happened in the interim was not magic. We breathed each other's air, celebrated each other's triumphs and wept over each other's failures. (A triumph meant that Bernbach had OK'd an ad, a failure meant that he hadn't.)

Bernbach's disciples learned the lesson. So I wept in David Reider's office and in Helmut Krone's, beamed for Phyllis Robinson and Julian Koenig, and generally felt my way around.

I also got lucky. Volkswagen came my way because I had worked for a few months for a Volkswagen dealer, and because Koenig left the agency and because Reider couldn't get along with Krone. I did El Al because I was born to.

I assaulted people in the halls, begging for work. I loved the business, and DDB people around the world knew it.

And, now, so do you.

By the time I published Bill Bernbach's Book: A History Of The Advertising That Changed The History Of Advertising in 1987, we at DDB had long ago concluded that what happens to society would affect everyone with ever-increasing speed, and that the most powerful force in the world was and would be public opinion, requiring all of us in the communications business to persuade, not sell.

What we learned together at DDB was that the metabolism of the world had changed and would continue to change at a rapid pace, requiring new vehicles to carry ideas to it. Our philosophy was to ally ourselves with great ideas and carry them to the public. We wholly believed that we practiced our craft on behalf of society, and that we must not just believe in what we sell, but that we must sell what we believe in.

I dedicated the book to those who would continue to energetically pursue this kind of vision, who would make the great contributions to our world of communications in the years to come. I am not saying that we predicted the web, but our belief at DDB in the power of persuasion, authenticity and public opinion was ahead of its time, and has certainly proven compatible with how media has evolved in a digital world.

Years ago, I wrote that Bernbach was a visionary with a visionary's zeal. And that he was also a worrier. Most of all, he worried about our doing nothing less than a brilliant job for clients. He believed the best way of winning new business was doing excellent work for the clients already in hand. That is why DDB did not do a new-business presentation for more than 20 years. Yet, he had a knack for dispelling the worries of other people. When Whitney Ruben, the head of Levy's Bakery, fretted about Bernbach's suggestion that the product's name be changed from Levy's Real Rye to Levy's Real Jewish Rye, Bill calmed the waters with the observation: "For God's sake, your name is Levy's. They're not going to mistake you for High Episcopalian." The "You don't have to be Jewish to love Levy's" poster campaign went on to run for many years.

When it came to our most iconic work, Volkswagen, our mantra was always: "The product. The product. Stay with the product." Simple and, ultimately, the manufacturing philosophy and the advertising philosophy were one and the same. The brand spoke with one voice throughout the world and people everywhere recognised that simple and authentic voice.

This was the DDB "shot heard around the world" and it was created by the vibrant people at DDB and Volkswagen of America. In many ways, the brand and the ads were just like us: irreverent, honest and different. A bunch of guys and women (Robinson was the first female copy chief in the business) who were up from the streets of New York - not the streets of Connecticut.

But the most impressive thing about Bernbach was not the specific ads that he inspired, but his creative philosophy that was built on a comprehensive examination of humanity that incorporated genetics, evolution, art, literature and a whole lot more.

When he was presented with the Partner in Science Award by the The Salk Institute, the citation read: "For his penetrating insights into the depths of human behaviour, for his constant refusal to acknowledge the distinction between art and science. For the simple act of giving himself, and, above all, for his help in explaining us to ourselves."

This last clause is extremely important. I once wrote that what Bernbach did was invent the "wheel of persuasion" because he could explain us to ourselves. He could explain us, change minds and perhaps even change men themselves.

That is what DDB means when it says its heritage is one of creativity and humanity, even - at times - creativity for humanity. That, and a whole lot more, is Bernbach's and his agency's legacy.

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