Bob Levenson, legendary DDB Creative Director, passes at age 83
I am saddened to tell you that our dear friend Bob Levenson, the Hall of Fame copywriter who from 1970 to 1985 served as DDB’s creative director, moving up to vice chairman and then chairman of DDB’s international division, died January 16 at the age of 83. Bob was a creative giant who personally wrote and later inspired many of the legendary ads that made DDB the most awarded agency of the 20th century.
Bob was laboring as a direct-mail writer when he saw the famous El Al “torn ocean” ad in The New York Times. He decided then and there, in 1959, that DDB was the only place to work. “I applied and applied and applied and finally I just wore them down,” said Bob. Shortly after he was hired, Bob wrote an El Al ad headlined “My Son, the Pilot” that won wide acclaim for the airline and for the agency. So memorable was the copy that a few years ago, at an event honoring Bob, David Abbott, the creative founder of London’s famous Abbott Mead Vickers agency, told the audience he had never considered a career in advertising until he saw Bob Levenson’s ad for El Al, which Abbott then recited verbatim, from memory.
In addition to his El Al campaign, Bob was personally responsible for the classic “Snow Plow” commercial for Volkswagen’s Beetle, Mobil’s “We Want You to Live” campaign, and the Sara Lee jingle that captured American hearts even as English teachers scratched their heads: “Everybody doesn’t like something, but nobody doesn’t like Sara Lee.”
Bob was very close to Bill Bernbach and is the author of the glossy DDB retrospective Bill Bernbach’s Book: A History of Advertising that Changed the History of Advertising. When Bill died in 1982, the Bernbach family asked Bob Levenson to deliver the eulogy at the United Nations Chapel in New York. Bob viewed Bill Bernbach as a father, a brother and a friend and in his tribute said, “I believe that an enormous part of the reason that the advertising we are known for is good is because our work was delivered by a lot of talented people as a love offering to Bill.”
To a lot of those talented people, Bob Levenson was a teacher, a coach and a leader. When writers got stuck on a piece of copy, he advised them to start with, “Dear Fred: This is what I want to tell you about such and such.” “Simply make believe that the person you’re talking to is a perfectly intelligent friend who knows less about the product than you do,” was Bob’s advice. “And then”, said Bob, “when you’re finished writing the copy, cross off the ‘Dear Fred’ part.”
So Dear Bob, your warmth and your wit and your wisdom have contributed so much to who we are at DDB. I know that in the coming days many heartfelt words of love and gratitude will be composed. But even when we’re all finished writing the copy, at DDB we’ll never cross off your name.