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.
But the creative revolution Bernbach ignited did not start with the moving image. It started in print. “I found out about Joan,” was the headline for an ad for Ohrbach’s, a retail outlet that was Bill’s first client. To me, it is the single most important ad of all time.
Why? Not just because it was the first time a retailer branded its customers instead of itself — it was suddenly chic to be cheap and this was at least fifty years before Target. It was the most important ad of all time not just because of the irresistible juxtaposition of arresting visual (a cat, with a hat and a long cigarette holder) and catty headline, not even because it was one of the first and best examples of Bernbach’s idea that every ad, like every person or product, should have a distinct personality, but because it was Bernbach’s work for Ohrbach’s that several years later attracted the U.S. importers of a pugnacious little car from Germany. Because DDB’s work for Ohrbach’s attracted Volkswagen, whose introduction of the Beetle is universally regarded as the opening volley of the creative revolution I suggest that “I Found Out about Joan” for Ohrbach’s is the ad that truly changed advertising history.
If the Ohrbach’s copy sounds like it came from the Catskills — “The way she talks, you’d think she was in Who’s Who. Well, I found out what’s with her…I just happened to be going her way and I saw Joan come out of Ohrbachs!” — it was because Ohrbach’s and many of DDB’s early clients made no attempt to disguise that they were Jewish or anyone else up from the street. The agency had plenty of people from all ethnic backgrounds: Irish, Italian and women (Phyllis Robinson was the first female copy chief in the industry) and was seen as the first common man agency in what was then a white bread advertising world. As James Twitchell says in his book Twenty Ads that Changed the World, “They came up from the street, not down from the hill, from NYU, not Princeton. In fact, they flaunted grit. OutrÃ© became classÃ©, which was no mean trick in a world still riddled with anti-Semitism.”
So for Ohrbach’s, high fashion at low prices. For Levy’s bread, the slogan “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s” was boldfaced over the smiling faces of an Irish cop, a native American chief, an African-American child and other obvious non-Jews. And for El Al, the national airline of Israel, a Jewish mother talked about “My son, the pilot,” a send-up of “my son, the doctor,” followed by ads with leads like, “We don’t take off until everything is kosher.”
And then came Volkswagen, and the campaign Advertising Age named the best of the 20th century — the beginning of the change in how advertising was done.
What was so revolutionary about the ads for the Volkswagen Beetle? Some say it was the fact that Bernbach gave an everyman personality to a German car — a combination of a schlemiel and a mensch, as one writer put it. Be that as it may, all agree that the Beetle was given a disarmingly winning and loveable personality, almost human. It was the personality of the scrappy underdog that loves to take on the establishment with wit and self-deprecating humor–“Think Small” and “Lemon.” That personality, established more than fifty years ago, carried through well into the 21st century.
Bill Bernbach once said that “word of mouth is the best medium of all.” He and his early band of revolutionaries made advertising people talked about. And people are talking about it still. It was, indeed, the advertising that changed advertising.
This post first appeared in an interview with David Wells on Wells, Liderazgo & Negocios, July 17, 2011