WAS HELMUT KRONE A GENIUS? HE DIDN'T THINK SO. BUT A COPYWRITER WHO TOILED ALONGSIDE THE LEGENDARY ART DIRECTOR BEGS TO DIFFER. BY EMPLOYING WIT TO DISARM HIS AUDIENCE, AND TURNING A NEW PAGE, HELMUT PROVED HE WAS . . . SIMPLY THE BEST

By Published on .

What was it like working for advertising's heralded art director, Helmut Krone? For Marty Cooke it was "titanically hard work. Our mission was nothing less than the reinvention of the art of advertising."

In an homage to the master, the chief creative director of Merkley Newman Harty gives Advertising Age a glimpse of what to expect in his book-in-progress on Krone. Cooke examines the inspiration behind the "New Page," the impetus behind the Volkswagen, Avis and Porsche campaigns, and the cultural forces that influenced the work of this artist.

Legendary copywriter Bob Levenson said it all: "Among art directors, there's Helmut Krone and then there's everybody else."

What was it about Helmut? His landmark campaigns are still evoked in agencies to prove various points. In an industry with an average age under 30 and little sense of the past, people still talk about ads he did nearly 40 years ago. Clearly Levenson put Helmut Krone where he belongs in advertising's pantheon.

But to label Helmut Krone an art director is to limit his legacy. He left us more than his fabled "New Page," which in reality was a steady stream of ground-breaking layouts. To admire only the startling clarity of a Helmut Krone page is like looking at a Mies van der Rohe building and seeing only its daring simplicity. To truly appreciate Mies, you have to realize the political intent behind his design. He was blatantly and aggressively not building the buildings of the previous centuries. Every bit of ornamentation he didn't put on his buildings was a blow to the old order.

Did Mies think of this every time he sat down at his drawing board? Probably not. Nor did Helmut likely ponder the deeper currents that defined his work. The great don't have to. They just do it.

Was Helmut a genius? He didn't think so. He was once quoted as saying, "I'm not a genius and I have to work a lot of nights to make up for it."

No one worked harder than Helmut. Bob Gage is one of many who was in awe of Helmut's work habits. Gage was the first art director Bill Bernbach had hired at Doyle Dane Bernbach and arguably Helmut's only peer during the golden age of DDB. In researching my book on Helmut, I spent an afternoon with Gage. If I could understand one of DDB's art directorial titans, perhaps I could begin to understand the other.

Their work habits couldn't have been more different. Gage could work with a so-so photograph and crop it brilliantly. He was the master improviser. Helmut, on the other hand, would take the brilliant photograph. With Helmut, nothing was ever left to chance.

Gage would generate dozens if not hundreds of ideas, rarely taking any of them to the next level. He would keep discarding them until he found one that suited him. Not Helmut. His process was exactly the reverse. He would hone in on an idea, worrying it, distilling it, boiling it down to its very essence. Gage marveled at the patience of the man. No one could suffer like Helmut. And no one made ads like Helmut.

Stories abound about Helmut's relentless pursuit of his personal Holy Grail. He dubbed it the "New Page." His first truly breakthrough New Page was the "Big Head" campaign he designed for Polaroid in 1956. It was breathtaking in its simplicity. Full-face portraits of famous people like Louis Armstrong and Grandma Moses. Astonishingly, no advertising art director had done this before. Not with such force, or elegance. Now, of course, it's been copied so many times -- by Newsweek, Apple and numerous others -- it's easy to forget somebody actually had to invent it in the first place.

By the early '60s, the page Helmut had to top was the last page he'd designed. The instant his latest New Page hit the magazines, it was, for him, old. His Volkswagen campaign ("Lemon," "Think small") not only received every award the advertising industry had to bestow, it was paid an even higher compliment: It was copied shamelessly.

Helmut's response to this flattery was typical of the man. It was completely unexpected, totally logical and deliciously diabolical. His next "New Page" was intentionally the exact opposite of the VW page. In place of the big picture, he used a small picture. Instead of the small headline, the new headline was huge. And he replaced the modern type with an almost old-fashioned serif type. He considered Avis' "We try harder" to be the best campaign of his career.

It looks easy now. The pages are clean, so bare of affect, so full of effect. Didn't ads always look like this? We're so used to them now, it's hard to realize how shocking they were at the time.

But the clarity and simplicity never came easily for him. Every ad was a struggle. Boiling ideas to their essence was hard on him and everyone around him. Account men were terrified to ask when the layouts would be ready to go to the clients. Traffic men would wait weeks past deadline and finally steal ads off his drawing table while he was out for lunch. There's a legendary story about the client who hired and left the agency before Helmut ever liked an ad well enough to show them. ("Oh, they're gone? Nobody told me.")

As a copywriter, I can assure you working with Helmut was like working with no other art director. We never started before 11 a.m. We always left the office for lunch. We'd always split a sandwich. In the afternoons, we always drank black coffee from his Braun coffeemaker. He often stayed later to work on layouts (copywriters were glacially unwelcome for "the building of the house"), but I never worked past 6:30 with him. I couldn't. Four or five straight hours with Helmut were more than any writer could take. It was titanically hard work. We weren't just trying to solve the advertising problem at hand; our mission was nothing less than the reinvention of the art of advertising. Every afternoon. When he did require some body copy, you received not a word count, but a character count. His influence was enormous at every level.

Helmut knew that advertising is not art. Art was what he created late at night in his studio with paint and brush. He was exceptionally clear that advertising has a serious secular purpose. He was, in fact, passionately interested in how his work impacted his clients' business. He believed breakthrough ideas could make a difference, and was proud when they did.

Like all great artists, Helmut had an uncanny radar to sense the undercurrents in society long before they reached the surface and became mainstream. It's what made his work revolutionary. Take "Think small." In 1960, it was absolute heresy. America was on top of the world. It had won World War II only 15 years before. The country had rejoiced and gone into a consumerist frenzy. Everybody had a house, even if it looked like everyone else's. Everyone watched the same TV shows, ate the same processed food, got the same haircuts.

And look at the cars Detroit was turning out. Big cars. Long cars, retouched to look even longer in the ads. Cars for people who thought big. But despite all this optimism, an underground in America was finding the conformity deadening. Jack Kerouac had hit the road. Allen Ginsberg had started howling in San Francisco.

Amid this ferment was Helmut Krone, voraciously consuming everything around him, particularly magazines and art. There was very little that Helmut wasn't aware of. Without doubt, other advertising people must have known what was going on, too. But it never occurred to them that it might have any relevance to advertising. Helmut tapped into the growing undercurrents of discontent. Right smack in the middle of this retouched, color-saturated, conformist, bigger is better world, he dropped his own little atomic bomb: "Think small."

He didn't dress it up with the hip trappings of the beat subculture. He created his own verbal and graphic language. Doesn't this make it even more subversive?

He flattered the reader with his belief that she would get his message. He distilled his reaction to the excess of the '50s into two simple words. He slapped consumerism in the face by blatantly not using full color. He thumbed his nose at a bloated society by not posing the Volkswagen with a shiny, happy nuclear family in front of their aspirational modern home.

In the middle of magazines filled with colorful excess, he put a tiny, homely, b&w picture of a German car. A car commissioned by the enemy of everything American and designed during the depths of the Great Depression.

And "Lemon." It was equally revolutionary. The very idea: admitting imperfection in America, the Land of Perfection. With one word, he mocked the hypocrisy of all the retouched lives, all the perfect families on TV from the Cleavers to the Nelsons, all the faked happiness.

He simply told the truth -- first. It was his genius to be the first to know that the public was ready to hear it. Suddenly, the nation of land yachts was being buzzed by Beetles. He later called the Volkswagen sales curve his greatest graphic.

Several years and dozens of VW ads later, he got there first again. By this time, America was deepening its commitment to Vietnam. The artists' guts were rumbling that something was seriously amiss. The world's No. 1 power was headed for a fall.

Into this, Helmut sprang another piece of heresy: He admitted his client was No. 2. How utterly un-American. The red-blooded research people told Avis it would be a disaster to run the campaign. "You can't admit you're No. 2," they howled. "And you'd better show some shiny cars. And forget about running pictures of ashtrays full of disgusting cigarette butts."

But Helmut's timing, as usual, was impeccable. No. 2 wouldn't have worked until a few cracks had begun to show in the American hegemony. And the people of Peoria, even if they hadn't consciously realized it yet, were on to this. On to it long before the experts of Madison Avenue. Being No. 2 was the perfect reason to believe that the people at Avis would try harder. It also probably relieved a lot of pressure. It's hard work being No. 1 all the time.

Helmut not only seemed to know what people wanted before they knew it, he had an unerring sense of what they were getting tired of before they did, too. He was the first advertising person to realize Americans were getting tired of advertising.

His solution: Leave out anything that smacked of advertising. As early as 1963, he famously left the Avis logo off his Avis ads. A logo, or any other convention of advertising, simply warned the skeptical reader, "I'm an ad, ignore me." Or worse, "Don't trust me."

It wasn't just an aesthetic consideration. It was conceptual.

Knowing how his readers felt about advertising, he redoubled his efforts to make ads that didn't look or speak like ads. These efforts reached their zenith with his infamous "technical" campaign for Porsche in the mid-70s. They don't look like ads. They don't look like editorial. If anything, they look like pages out of a Swiss-grid brochure. Logos, yes, but not anywhere you'd expect them. Headlines, no. Just big numbers with a dry explanation: "No. 13 in a Series of Technical Papers." There were snappy titles like "Subject: Optimization of Driver Performance." And technical copy -- lots of it, more than you were meant to read. He even threw in an engineer's schematic drawing. He wanted the layout to evoke the breathless feeling an automotive aficionado would get upon opening the hood of a Porsche for the first time. To his target, this would be sex. He would simply give the reader the unvarnished engineering truth and leave them to draw their own sweaty conclusions. It was, again, heresy. And this time, no one rushed to imitate the great Helmut Krone.

A dozen years later as Helmut was retiring from the business, I understood. So did many others. Suddenly, smart admakers stopped trying to make ads that looked like ads. They realized bludgeoning readers with hyperbole, however hip or clever, didn't work anymore. They finally learned that if you trusted the reader to draw his own conclusions, he'd respect you. And possibly even trust you.

Helmut knew this all along. He simply sensed the unspoken truth before ordinary mortals did. And he didn't flinch in the telling of it.

This is what makes Helmut worth remembering. As Emerson wrote, " -- to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men -- that is genius."

So in this sense, perhaps Helmut was a genius. A genius who employed wit to disarm his audience. Since his truths were inevitably new, he instinctively knew he had to present them in a new way. His New Page was simply the most effective way to make sure people noticed his New Truth.

Yes, he probably was the finest art director of all time. But Helmut Krone was much more. He was the greatest artist ever to practice advertising. His legacy is certainly more akin to that of the great artist: his finger on the pulse of what profoundly matters; his relentless pursuit of the truth; his exquisite

In this article:
Most Popular