Back to Basics: Wisdom from Norman Berry

By Matt Van Hoven 

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After receiving a load of e-mails saying that you like the “Back to Basics” series, we’ve chosen to to keep them going. The articles, originally published by the Wall Street Journal, contain tons more than we’re sharing with you, we’re pulling a few choice quotes and commenting on them. And to prove wrong the one dude who thinks we should stop pretending like looking back in history will help anything, we’ve added the above poll.

Why do this? They say history repeats itself. We’ve entitled this series, “Back to Basics” for just that reason &#151 to give you a window back to a time when the industry wasn’t flooded with media veins, still focused on copy and expected different things from its dedicated addies. With no further adieu, Mr. Norman Berry.


After a successful career in London, Berry came to the U.S. where he would eventually come to lead Ogilvy & Mather.

On American talent:

“Sensationally good. The creative problem isn’t with art directors and writers, or with the young kids coming into the business; it’s management. Many agency managements ask for great work on Monday. And then on Tuesday they ask for rubbish. Inconsistent standards breed apathy. Writers and art directors conclude excellence doesn’t count; it is only a game of giving the client what he asks for. They stop caring. How can you blame them, when management doesn’t care?”

Don’t let your account managers read that. To what extent is this still true today? Considering how complex the business has become, as Ken Roman told us, industry “standards” as they were once known have changed drastically. You’re not just writing for a print ad anymore, fellas.

On creative freedom:

“In my experience, British agencies are more disciplined than American agencies. Yet there is more freedom. That isn’t a contradiction. The difference is that English strategies are very tight, very precise. Satisfy the strategy, and the idea will not be faulted even though it may appear to be outrageous. Many U.S. strategies are too vague, too open to interpretation. ‘The strategy for this product is taste.’ they’ll say. But that is not a strategy. Then, somewhere down at the bottom of the page, there’ll be a note concerning tone and manner; ‘warm and friendly.’ As if ‘cold and unfriendly’ were an option.”

Leave it to a Brit to say they do it better. Yes, Americans have a tendency to be more esoteric in thinking. But English advertising is rooted in the country’s prim and proper history. Take Scostsman David Ogilvy who was almost always buttoned up &#151 even in the way he wrote copy. American bravado is and was the reason this country became so interesting to the rest of the world. ‘The Sex Pistols’ were the closest England ever got to “bad ass” &#151 and now one of them is selling butter.

On hiring:

“I want creative people who think of me as a rather backward man who’s holding them back. They should be pushing me. When they present creative work to me, it should be so on strategy that I cannot fault it. Yet it should be so innovative that it makes me break out in perspiration all over.”

Nuff said.

On advertising effectiveness:

“Offensive, dull, abrasive, stupid advertising is bad for the entire industry and for business as a whole. It is why the public perception of advertising is going down in this country. Until there is widespread recognition that effective advertising can be intelligent, charming, informative, entertaining &#151 advertising agencies should view themselves as an endangered species.”

This last point is possibly the most interesting because today there is so much “advertising” that one can hardly make any claims about it other than: there is way too much of it and most is bad. And though award shows like Cannes and the Clios and The One Show work to highlight the best of the best, the lowest common denominators tend to stick out in the public’s mind. Saved by Zero, Doritos “Snow Globe”, Snuggie, Cash4Gold. Since I personally consider myself more a member of the general public than of the advertising community, I’m comfortable in saying that the industry has not reached Berry’s standard.

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