Bernbach’s Fatal Flaws

As we wrap up awards season, it seems everyone in advertising is disgruntled about something. Whether the complaint du jour is Cannes has become meaningless, or the judges should give extra points to work for being “famous,” what becomes clear from Doris Willens’ Nobody’s Perfect: Bill Bernbach and the Golden Age of Advertising is that being disgruntled is far from new.

This, and not Bernbach being such a bad guy (he was human, after all!), is the book’s most depressing take-away. Although some industry fundamentals are now more complicated, history has a way of repeating itself, and some problems seem baked into the DNA.

Take the issue of who gets credit for what. Advertising is a notoriously collaborative and therefore sometimes anonymous process- which is why such a high premium is placed on awards. Many people never think they get their due, even gods whose names are synonymous with brilliant work, like Bernbach.
 
Willens, who self-published the book (you can get it on Amazon.com), is a former journalist who was the PR director of DDB through the glory years of the late 1950s and 1960s. One unpleasant thing she reveals is Bernbach liked to take credit for everything — from the body copy on a newspaper ad for Ohrbach’s that he (understandably) didn’t have the patience to write himself, to the glass-and-marble design of the executive floor.
 
Willens takes pains to explain she was conflicted about writing the book, although it appears she timed it to take advantage of the success of Mad Men. (It does seem the show’s writers are taking chapters straight out of the DDB playbook.) And in general she doesn’t seem to know whether to bury him or praise him.

She copiously acknowledges Bernbach’s genius for the medium and how he loved the big idea. “Do it different” was his mantra from the early 1950s on, way before Apple got there. And she underscores his talent for being able to snatch concepts out of the air and codify them on the page, and also to nurture creative revolutionaries.

But I’d say she comes out on the side of burying him (with faint praise!). The most poignant interpretation is that, in the end, Bernbach was an insecure, scared man obsessed with secrecy and protecting his family wealth, resulting in disastrous decisions of when to go public (twice) and, in the end, the selling of the agency. The cautionary part for anyone in the business is that what “killed” DDB, despite its glorious creative talent, was its eternal lack of management.

Bernbach, the big daddy of creative, had his own father/son issues. His uneducated immigrant parents disowned him for marrying out of the faith (oy!), and having been cast out by his father could be why he never stood up to the legendary account man Joe Daly. The guy had an iron grip on the Polaroid business (for which the agency did beautiful work, and also pulled off live stunts on TV that would be fascinating even today). He also seems to have fulfilled the heavy drinking and womanizing requirements depicted on Mad Men. And to maintain his own power, Daly appears to have taken pleasure in destroying anyone brought in to stem the chaos on the account side.

Clueless people were also hired and the stories of those poor saps who came aboard as upper management reads like a mix of the Keystone Kops and Monty Python. On this subject, the writing is laugh-out-loud funny. The left hand never knew what the right hand was doing (especially concerning new business) and that made the agency look foolish. Willens describes one new business guy who traveled the country first class, never brought in a single account, and constantly issued memos emblazoned with “Confidential” and  “Please read and destroy.” These top-secret memos turned out to be lists of corporate executives and their companies.
 
Not that the creative side ran well, either. There was a cast of luminaries with giant egos, and at times the lunatics ran the asylum. Coming off particularly badly, fairly or not, is Roy Grace. He’s quoted as telling creatives who brought him work for approval. “Why are you bringing me this piece of shit?”

Bernbach’s biggest mistake was that he never appointed a creative heir. The unruly bunch needed a daddy desperately. In the end, little was salvageable. This led to the historic “Big Bang” merger of 1986, when DDB effectively was subsumed into Needham Harper. (Keith Reinhard comes off pretty well.)
 
What’s amazing to me, no matter how many people take credit for it (and the pissing matches are still going on!), is how fresh ads like Volkswagen’s “Think Small” still seem. It justifies all of its awards — and reminds us that great advertising is its own reward.