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Advertising Legends – Bill Bernbach

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Advertising-legends series: 1. David Ogilvy (click here) 2. Leo Burnett (click here) 3. Bill Bernbach
By Will Brown of eyeconomy.co.uk 

Bill Bernbach was an advertising executive and advertising creative legend - at the height of his success during the 1950′s, 1960′s and 19070′s. He is remembered for being one of the founding members of DDB (Doyle Dane Bernbach as it was originally known) and for creating many infamous campaigns such as the Volkswagen Beetle ‘Think Small’ campaign; considered by many in the industry to be one of the best, if not the best, campaign in the history of advertising.

Beginnings

Bernbach was born in New York (1911). His education and interests were steeped in the arts and literature (graduating with a degree in literature from New York University). After graduation Bernbach was committed to a career in advertising but found it difficult to get a foot in the door. He started off working in a mailroom, writing ads for his employers. Although success did not come straight away, Bernbach, eventually, did enough to persuade his employers that he had some talent, and was, consequently, promoted to the advertising department. Bernbach joined his first ad agency in 1940 but it was long before he had to give that up for the war effort, returning to the world of advertising in 1945 (taking on a senior role in Grey Advertising).

DDB

Bernbach was one of the co-founders of DDB (founded 1949), and held overall responsibility in the agency for all creative output. His first major success came with the “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s” campaign for the bakery Henry S. Levy. There were to be many successful campaigns after this: “When you’re No. 2, you try harder” for Avis, as well as campaigns for Polaroid, El Al Airlines and more.

Think Small

But it is for ‘Think Small’ that Bernbach is best remembered for. The image of a minute car with the ‘Think Small’ strapline was radically different to campaigns for other car manufacturers of the time – campaigns that were often hard-sell / gimmicky / impersonal and so on. Bernbach focused on what actually made the Beetle different to the other cars on the market. David Ogilvy wrote, apparently: “Bill Bernbach and his merry men positioned Volkswagen as a protest against the vulgarity of Detroit cars in those days, thereby making the Beetle a cult among those Americans who eschew conspicuous consumption”. Not only did the it create brand awareness but sales for Beetle cars soared after the release of the campaign.

Bernbach’s approach

Bernbach was at the heart of the advertising ’Creative Revolution’ (of the 1950′s and 1960′s). The ‘Creative Revolution’ was about creating a more informal and egalitarian atmosphere / work model in the ad agency so as to encourage creativity.
And his approach to creative output was just as dramatic, adding, in particular, personality, humour and an overall creative touch that was quite different to what was, typically, going on in the ad industry in general at the time. Bernbach was, also, noted for trying to make creative work, and in particular copywriting, as simple as possible. He, also, played an important role in the development of creative visual work (focusing on the way images can be powerful communication tools) which had an important impact on the burgeoning (in the 1950′s at least) advertising channel of television.
Bernbach was hugely respected by those who worked under him, both for the type of work culture that he developed in DDB, as well as the longs list of successful campaigns he created (and edited). Many of those who worked under Bernbach went onto to join other agencies where they brought with them Bernbach’s particular philosophy and, approach in general, to advertising.
One surprising part of Bernbach’s approach, however, was his lack of enthusiasm for research. Perhaps this was the result of not being naturally adept in this particular advertising discipline, on his part. Instead he just relied on gut instinct.

Legacy

Bernbach was at the height of his career more than 50 years ago but is still remembered and looked up to today for the the impact he had on creativity, in general, in the advertising industry. The type of ad agency he helped to create and the type of work he produced would have been easily recognizable in the world of advertising 5 or 10 years ago – with the internet having a dramatic effect on the advertising industry in recent years, of course). Even today his life in, and writings about, advertising are still read and mulled over by many in the industry.

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4 Comments

  1. “When you’re No. 2, you try harder�? is a great quote. Making me think more about changing what my next slogan is going to be.

  2. James. Can’t imagine Avis being too enthusiastic, at first, with being referred to as ‘no.2′ in an ad. Risky ad campaign that paid off big for them.

  3. So after they used that slogan how long were they number 2 for?

  4. Really inspiring read. Makes me wish I’d been born a few decades earlier though!

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