New Book Paints Bernbach as Much Lemon as Legend

Creative Genius Shown as Blemished, Insecure, Leaning on Others' Work

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Twenty-seven years after the death of the legendary adman and DDB founder, the agency's former PR director has quietly self-published a 200-page tell-all, "Nobody's Perfect: Bill Bernbach and the Golden Age of Advertising," that shatters the image of Mr. Bernbach as masterful copywriter and confident ad titan.

IMPERFECT: Author Willens hopes book does not 'completely obliterate' Bernbach's image as an inspiration.
IMPERFECT: Author Willens hopes book does not 'completely obliterate' Bernbach's image as an inspiration.
In it, Doris Willens, a former journalist who ran PR at the agency between 1966 and 1984, paints the man who many think of as the embodiment of the advertising revolution, and its golden age, as an insecure individual with no interest in the drudgery that was writing "all the little words" for ads, rising to fame largely on the backs of the talented creatives under him.

The New York City native who opened Doyle Dane Bernbach in June 1949 and was there until his retirement in 1976 earned a reputation for breaking barriers, but there was a gap between his stated philosophy and real life, Ms. Willens writes. Mr. Bernbach, in many ways, was comfortable only with the familiar; he ate at the same restaurants, wore grey suits and dotted ties, and was generally rather dull in the opinion of colleagues.

In her self-published book, Ms. Willens does credit Mr. Bernbach as the father of integrating art and copy, and for being a devoted family man, unlike the many womanizing and boozing admen of his day. But those virtues don't sing through as much as anecdotes of Mr. Bernbach digging in trash cans in search of headlines, recycling speeches, putting one of his sons on the payroll unbeknownst to management, and -- unlike his prolific rival David Ogilvy -- experiencing frustration over not publishing his own book before succumbing to leukemia in October of 1982.

"I hope it doesn't completely obliterate his importance as the inspiration for creative people ... though it might," Ms. Willens told Advertising Age in an interview.

'Mad Men' inspiration
So why release the book after all these years? She began the manuscript many years ago, and in the '90s Ad Age even published excerpts of it (see below). Former Ad Age editor Fred Danzig recalled "the response was amazing; we wanted more and more but she withheld a lot of the stuff." Years passed and the manuscript collected dust, with Ms. Willens figuring the contents were no longer interesting. But then something happened: "Mad Men."

"I thought its time had passed, but because of 'Mad Men,' I saw interest in the era and a few people who had read the manuscript said now is the time," said Ms. Willens. "It's material that I hate to see wasted: these were real people, they were fascinating people, and I was a reporter."

California-bred Ms. Willens attended UCLA and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism (at the time, tuition, room and board cost a total of $1,000 and there were 65 students in her class). She wrote for the Minneapolis Tribune, Editor & Publisher magazine and the Washington Post, but it was a stop at the New York Journal-American as an ad columnist that gave her her first taste of Madison Ave. Her first agency-side job was handling public relations at Grey, which gave her the experience she needed for her 18-year career at DDB.

From the agency Mr. Bernbach built came industry all-stars such as Helmut Krone, George Lois and Mary Wells Lawrence. Countless ad execs through DDB's doors and legions of young talents in portfolio schools have studied his famous "Think Small" campaign for Volkswagen. For many of these people, Ms. Willens' version of Mr. Bernbach is controversial.

"I did not work personally with Bill, but my dream was to build a worldwide network based on the principles that he espoused and articulated that inspired so many people in addition to myself," said Keith Reinhard, chairman emeritus for DDB Worldwide. "I don't think Bill ever claimed to be a copywriter, and to my knowledge, his great gift is inspiration," said Mr. Reinhard, who questioned "what constructive purpose the book is serving."

'More than accurate'
"There's nothing like it anywhere," said Mr. Danzig. "We've gotten all kinds of insider books about corporate mismanagement, but what she's got here are the interviews over the years with all the principals who were unburdening themselves during the 'Golden Age' and 'the Big Bang.'" In Mr. Danzig's view, the book is "more than accurate."

Bernbach
Enlarge

Read portions of Doris Willens' Bernbach manuscript from Ad Age in 1991.
"It doesn't take away any of his accomplishments in revolutionizing advertising, but it also shows the limitations of the man, how jealously he guarded his image and didn't want to let others take credit for anything," Mr. Danzig said.

"I haven't read the book and I don't want to read the book," said famed art director George Lois, who worked at DDB before launching his first agency, Papert, Koenig, Lois, and later going on to create campaigns such as "I Want My MTV." "But if you're asking me if was he a great copywriter, not at all. I don't think I've ever known of an example of something he wrote that was great."

Added Mr. Lois: "I had a very close relationship with him, not only when I worked with him, but afterwards, and my experience with him was that he never tried to write copy. I heard him blurt out some headlines sometimes that were kinda bad.

"But that certainly doesn't diminish his reputation, because he created the first great advertising agency in the world. And when I say he was inspirational, I mean, beyond inspirational. I loved doing presentations with clients with him; it was a passionate, visceral experience."

Highlights from 'Nobody's Perfect':

Pg. 44: "Presentations to potential clients were nothing more than Bernbach showing agency ads out of 'the black box,' a leather presentation case, and telling the story behind each. [Secretary Nancy Underwood] would stock the black box, selecting ads she deemed relevant to the advertiser's business. Bernbach would ask her, when he picked up the case, what she'd put in this time."

Pg. 51: "From Helmut Krone's wastepaper basket, Bernbach fished wads of crumpled papers and beamed upon spreading open a sheet with the words, 'We're only Number Two. So we try harder.' What did it matter if Bernbach did or did not write much beyond the headlines? To advertising history, it matters not at all. In attempting to understand Bernbach, it signifies."

Pg. 86: "Trade reporters eventually stopped calling for advance copies of Bernbach's speeches. They learned that none was ever available. When they attended and took notes, they realized that the material was familiar; whole segments were repeats from earlier speeches."

Pg. 123: "Bernbach, as father, encouraged and developed the talents of his creatives, took credit for many of their accomplishments, felt devastated when they left him, and resented any implication of their outdoing him."

Pg. 186: "Often, looking out on the spires of St. Patrick's Cathedral, [Barry] Loughrane pondered the Gothic complexities within Doyle Dane Bernbach's hallowed halls. What had Bernbach thought as he sat here, aware of his approaching death, yet attending not at all to the matter of a creative successor?"

From "Nobody's Perfect," by Doris Willens, available only on Amazon.com and self-published using Amazon's CreateSpace.

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