Bernbach, William

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William Bernbach, who launched advertising's "creative revolution" in the 1960s, did not set out to change the world of advertising. Born on Aug. 13, 1911, in New York, he went to public school in the Bronx and later graduated from New York University.

Among his early jobs, he worked at Schenley Distillers before becoming a promotional writer for the 1939 New York World's Fair. In 1941, he signed on with the Weintraub Agency in New York before joining the army during World War II. After a short time in the army, Mr. Bernbach returned to New York to become a writer for Grey Advertising, eventually rising to VP-copy and art. There he met Ned Doyle and, along with Maxwell Dane, a friend who had worked at Look, decided to open the agency that would become the epicenter of the creative revolution: Doyle Dane Bernbach.

Mr. Bernbach's new agency, launched June 1, 1949, thrived on groundbreaking zeal. "I've got a great gimmick," he quipped in an early speech. "Let's tell the truth." DDB advertising did just that. The funny, warm print ads for Volkswagen, Avis Rent a Car System, Henry S. Levy & Sons, and Ohrbach's turned the traditional hard sell into strategic wit and honest communication.

To many, the Volkswagen "Think small" campaign symbolized the creative approach of this new chapter in advertising history: it was honest, self-deprecating, radically inventive in layout and language (especially for this product category), and witty—all while selling cars.

Mr. Bernbach told his clients that to establish successful communication with the consumer, rules had to be broken. To begin with, the client had to be ready to sign on to something different in order to make the audience feel something different. "[A]ppeals to logic fail because the brain is not an instrument of logic at all," he noted. "It is an organ of survival, like fangs and claws."

This philosophy was evident in the headline of a 1967 ad in favor of a nuclear test ban treaty: "We now have enough atom bombs to kill every Russian 360 times. The Russians only have enough to kill every American 150 times. We're ahead, aren't we?"

To create the powerful messages he vigorously advocated, Mr. Bernbach built a talent base like no other, eschewing Ivy League alumni (the traditional recruits for ad agency jobs) for graduates of art schools and English departments and for middle-class, metropolitan types who had unusual perspectives. He hired Jews, Italians, Irish and women; the agency looked as different from other shops as it sounded.

In the early 1960s, DDB became the creative shop where advertising writers and art directors wanted to work. Mr. Bernbach was their leader, their mentor, the father figure who passed harsh judgment on everything he saw but rewarded the work he approved of with his careful attention.

Mr. Bernbach was responsible for at least four fundamental innovations in the industry. First, he changed the ethic of creativity. Before him, the work of producing an ad was a straightforward routine: Sell the product through hard benefit. Mr. Bernbach, on the other hand, invented the concept of "concept"—that is, ideas with strategic force. He made writers and art directors into the heroes of the business, engendering a respect evident today in the salaries of successful creatives.

Second, Mr. Bernbach by restructured the creative side of agencies. At the time, writers customarily worked on copy while art directors produced layouts; then the two met to put the two pieces together. Mr. Bernbach made teams of two—copywriter and art director—work together to form a strategy, then bring their joint idea to fruition.

Third, by hiring a new type of creative personnel—people from diverse ethnicities and backgrounds and with different, nontraditional sorts of expertise—he moved the profession beyond the mystique of the "gray flannel suit." Mr. Bernbach and DDB nurtured rebels and new thinkers, turning them into a new breed of professional creative people who viewed their craft as an art form. A number of industry luminaries worked with Mr. Bernbach during the heady 1960s and early 1970s, among them Carl Ally, Ted Bell, Bob Gage, Julian Koenig, Helmut Krone, Bob Levenson, George Lois and Phyllis Robinson.

Perhaps the most profound change to result from the "creative revolution" was wrought by Mr. Bernbach's work itself. His Volkswagen work is cited as the benchmark for changing not only a product category but also the way to think about advertising. Bernbach's first creative coups were coupled with strong type and simple, often funny language.

In 1999, Advertising Age named him "Advertising Person of the Century" and at the same time named his "Think small" effort for Volkswagen the best advertising campaign of the 20th century.


Born in New York City, Aug. 13, 1911; educated at public schools in New York City; received B.A. in English from New York University, 1932; married Evelyn Carbone, June 5, 1938 (sons John and Paul both became executives at Doyle Dane Bernbach); founded Doyle Dane Bernbach, June 1, 1949; retired from DDB, 1976; named to the Advertising Hall of Fame, 1977; died of leukemia, Oct. 2, 1982.

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