Bill Bernbach, Ad Legend

by | Jun 21, 2021

Bill Bernbach is the most quoted, most respected, and most beloved advertising man in history. The Jewish kid from Brooklyn changed the score on Madison Avenue, and we continue to thank him for that.

Bernbach graduated from NYU in 1933. After working in the creative department at Grey—where he met Ned Doyle—he formed Doyle Dane Bernbach in 1949.

Bernbach is credited with inventing and promoting the copywriter-art director team…a huge step forward for the agency business. He respected the creative process and demanded that others respect it too. His focus on the creative team and the process of making ads led to many outstanding outcomes.

Bernbach also hired the most talented (and overlooked) people of his day: Phyllis Robinson was copy chief, Helmut Krone, and George Lois were art directors. These Ad Legends invented the modern craft of advertising and no story of the early days at DDB is complete without them.

Bernbach and his team introduced a softer style of advertising, one where the art of persuasion made all the difference. DDB left room for the reader in their ads. It wasn’t all spelled out, and that triggered something positive in people. It also allowed DDB to grow from half a million in billings at its inception to a global powerhouse worth several billion dollars.

DDB’s Big Car Account

In 1951, when DDB won the Volkswagen account, car ads like most ads were busy trying to convince people. Bernbach went another way with VW. Like Leo Burnett, he understood that the answer to the ad riddle is found inside the product or service. Like Rosser Reeves, Bernbach knew he needed a Unique Selling Proposition. Unlike anyone else, Bernbach was bold without being obnoxious, smart without being pretentious, and honest.

This VW ad is a long way from Theodore McManus and his over-wrought ads for Cadillac. This is modernism. As in modern architecture, now we have artistic restraint. What’s not said is as critical as what is said.

Today we recognize “Lemon” and its partner “Think Small” as some of the best ads ever made.

A Case Study in Brand Positioning

DDB found a point of difference for Avis and deftly positioned the company as a harder-working version of Hertz. Harder working and a lot more fun.

I also love the detail in this copy. The ad doesn’t need the bit about finding a pastrami sandwich while traveling, but it’s a much better ad because it’s in there. It’s a better ad because it recognizes human wants and needs.

Bernbach warned against over-reliance on research. He told an audience of advertising executives, “It’s intuition and artistry, not science, that develops effective advertising.”

DDB Helped Elect the President in 1964

This ad for Johnson for President is far from the soft sell of Avis or VW. It shows DDB’s range and also their courage.

Advertising is powerful. American presidents are powerful. Here they come together in one of the most impactful ads of all time. An ad that helped LBJ win the White House in ’64.

Bill Bernbach’s Legacy

Building on David Ogilvy’s belief that the customer isn’t a moron, Bernbach left room for the customer in the ad, room for people to piece it together and figure it out. He advanced a more artful form of advertising. It was not art for art’s sake, because that’s not advertising.

Phyllis Robinson said, “I don’t think Bill set out to make a revolution of or a fortune. The whole idea was creative freedom. His ambitions were only large in terms of room to breathe.”