Bill Bernbach: Creative Revolutionary

On the centennial of his birth, a look back

Don’t let the button-down shirt and the rep stripe tie fool you—Bill Bernbach was an aesthete, not an Establishment Man. The Creative Revolution that Bernbach led—which came to define the 1960s for baby boomers as much as rock ’n’ roll did—was about originality in thought and design in service of pushing product.

“The difference between the forgettable and the enduring is artistry” was how Bernbach himself put it.

Before Bernbach (whose 100th birthday would have been Aug. 13), Madison Avenue—and the ads it produced—was Ivy League and WASP. Its preferred method in the ’40s and ’50s was the boring repetitiveness of the “universal selling proposition” propounded by Ted Bates CEO Rosser Reeves. Art, when used, was expected only to support the drumbeat of the copy—“Melts in your mouth, not in your hand” was a Bates line.

Doyle Dane Bernbach, on the other hand, which Bernbach co-founded in 1949 with partners Mac Dane and Ned Doyle, came to be defined by its ethnicity (“two Jews and an Irishman” went the joke), the freshness of the language it used, and by Bernbach insisting that ads look as striking as they sounded. An oft-cited example—for good reason—is the “Think Small” print ad for the Volkswagen Beetle, in which art director Helmut Krone placed a shrunken photo of the Bug against a vast white background.

Bernbach also pioneered the concept of combining copywriters and art directors into teams of creative equals. Those teams weren’t producing art for art’s sake. While Bernbach famously rejected his contemporary David Ogilvy’s devotion to data (“I warn you against believing that advertising is a science” is just one of Bernbach’s aphorisms on the topic), he wanted his advertising to be efficient. He just thought that indulging the divine spark was the best way to save a buck. “Properly practiced, creativity can make one ad do the work of 10,” Bernbach said.

Or maybe that was the best pitch he could come up with to break into categories previously dominated by the Establishment WASP firms. Jewish agencies had long been confined to working with Jewish clients, which meant, for the most part, the Garment District and its retailers. (Bernbach made his reputation in the ’40s at the Jewish-owned Grey working on the Ohrbach’s department store account.)

Bernbach’s message about creativity has lasted longer than the maxims of Reeves or Ogilvy—more than 50 years at this point—and been spread not only through the many agencies built by Doyle Dane Bernbach alumni (e.g., Wells Rich Greene; Grace & Rothschild; Goldsmith/Jeffrey; Papert, Koenig, Lois), but through the long line of creatively driven shops that have dominated the industry since, from Chiat/Day to Wieden + Kennedy.

Oddly, the one place where it’s hard to see Bernbach’s legacy as clearly is at his old firm, which dispensed with the Doyle Dane Bernbach brand when, after Bernbach’s death from leukemia in 1982, it fell on hard times. A merger with Needham Harper and rollup into Omnicom followed; along the way the iconic names were dropped in favor of the anodyne initials DDB. (Meanwhile Ogilvy, whose style Bernbach subsumed and surpassed, still has his name and logo on the agency he founded.)

Bernbach, perhaps, wouldn’t have minded, having issued his own warning about what would happen when the revolution burned out. “I fear all the sins we may commit in the name of ‘Creativity,’” he once said. “I fear that we may be entering an age of phonies.”

1. American Airlines

2. The Volkswagen ad that defined the Bernbach style.

3. The American Tourister chimp; as indelible as any sitcom character.

4. “Mama mia, that’s a spicy meatball!” for Alka-Seltzer.

5. A print ad for Jamaica tourism,

the first destination to also sponsor TV spots.

6. Chivas Regal became a status symbol

thanks to Bernbach.

7. Another in what became a series of iconic

takes on the Beetle.

8. Overtly noting ethnicity was

almost unknown before Bernbach.