Master of the art of persuasion

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When his peers, newly energized by television's promise, were filling the media with slap-dash re-creations of old hard-sell messages from Madison Avenue's pre-World War II, pre-cyberspace years, Bill Bernbach was ablaze with a fresh artistic vision that transcended advertising.

He focused on the art of persuasion. The difference, he explained, was "artistry -- the intangible thing that business distrusts."

Before his time, copywriters wrote copy and headlines, roughed out a sketch, delivered the work to art directors and went away to await the finished ad.

IDEAS BOUNCE BACK AND FORTH

An exceptionally visual copywriter, Bill Bernbach placed his writers and artists in one room and had them bounce ideas back and forth -- often with his input -- until something good came of it. The ads they turned out set off vibrations, aroused feelings, persuaded and unleashed a spectacular torrent of creative power that would liberate the world of advertising.

Their soft-spoken leader, who liked to remind people that nobody's perfect, was himself a vain, impeccable, short (five-seven), white-haired, blue-eyed genius, a slave to habit in his daily agency routine as well as his wardrobe (gray suites and blue shirts forever).

And he was a worrier. Let up for moment and it will all go pfffft! Or, with no warning, he would lose his uncanny ability to separate style-and-substance from style-only.

"Bring dead facts back to life," he urged. Or nagged. "Pluck out the weeds that are smothering the product message." And always, always "know your product inside-out before you start working and relate that knowledge to the consumer's needs."

`LIKE NO IDEA AT ALL'

He also said "An important idea not communicated persuasively is like having no idea at all," and to minimize his suffering when he felt a great idea had been executed sloppily, Mr. Bernbach would drop by to check with his creative teams. These people, who lived to please him, learned to ask each other, "What would Bill do?"

His teams were special: Phyllis Robinson, Bob Gage, Bill Taubin, Judy Protas, Paula Green, Roy Grace, Helmut Krone, David Reider -- the list goes on and on -- were hired not only for their talents, but because Mr. Bernbach saw them as "good people, nice to each other." When one of his proteges defected, for whatever reason, he took it as a disloyal act, not additional evidence of Doyle Dane Bernbach's growing reputation and influence.

So focused was Mr. Bernbach on his "art of persuasion" that he never bothered to learn about advertising's history, rarely attended an industry conference, and, simply put, did not play well with people not connected to his work. Yes, on occasion he'd go off to deliver what DDBers called "The Speech," where he soberly linked his inspiration to the accomplishments of Einstein, Aristotle, Keynes, James Watson, Thelonius Monk and other immortals.

PRESSURED TO WRITE

After agency leaders David Ogilvy and Rosser Reeves wrote books that became huge best-sellers as well as powerful new-business magnets, Mr. Bernbach came under pressure to write a book, too. He eventually gave in and signed a Harcourt Brace Jovanovich contract, but the book never got written. He did an introduction, then lost his enthusiasm when HBJ rejected a version of "The Speech" that he submitted. The family returned his $10,000 advance to HBJ after his death.

His introduction, however, turned up in the illustrated coffee-table volume that DDB's illustrious copywriter, Bob Levenson, put together for Villard Books in 1987 and titled, with some irony, "Bill Bernbach's Book." Among Mr. Bernbach's words: "The world has progressed to the point where its most powerful force is public opinion. And I believe that in this new, complex, dynamic world it is not the great book or the epic play, as once was the case, that will shape that opinion, but those who understand mass media and the techniques of mass persuasion . . . We must not just believe in what we sell. We must sell what we believe in. And we must pour a vast energy into these causes."

He couldn't have described his own work ethic better.

Bronx-born, college-educated, Mr. Bernbach landed a job with Schenley Distillers during the Great Depression and attempted to learn copywriting in its ad department. After a half-dozen years there, he became a speechwriter for Grover Whelan, the Schenley executive who organized the 1939 New York World's Fair. In 1941, Mr. Bernbach, then 30, became a writer at Schenley's agency, William Weintraub Advertising, where Paul Rand, the pioneer industrial designer, was chief art director. Mr. Rand was experimenting with "no walls" writer-art integration and, significantly, Mr. Bernbach became his most ardent disciple.

LEAVES ARMY BEHIND

After a brief army career, Mr. Bernbach was hired at Grey Advertising, rose from copywriter to VP-creative director, but could not persuade Grey's brass to adopt the "no creative walls" approach. By 1949, with David Ogilvy's new agency generating excitement with its intelligent copy and powerful headlines, Mr. Bernbach, then 38, decided he had to leave Grey. He recruited his Grey buddy, the veteran account director Ned Doyle, 47, who reached out to his former asociate at Look magazine, Maxwell (Mac) Dane, 43, who by then had his own small agency. And so the Dane shop at 350 Madison Ave. morphed into Doyle Dane Bernbach on June 1, 1949, with 13 employees and 1,800 sq. ft., and a new account from Grey -- Ohrbach's department store.

During the next 33 years, until Mr. Bernbach's death at 71 in 1982, "outside" man Ned Doyle pursued business; Mr. Dane managed "inside"; and Mr. Bernbach was free to pursue Bernbachian persuasion.

DDB quickly caught on. During its first decade, the agency's fresh, witty, insightful work landed at least three dozen clients. Advertising Age praised the new agency for the "piercing quality" of its work. Mr. Bernbach and his creatives began to dominate copy and art award shows, and advertising's best and brightest flocked to DDB, eager to work for its inspirational leader.

ADS ON BULLETIN BOARDS

Time magazine reported that admen were posting DDB ads on their own bulletin boards "as a sign of respect," but Mr. Bernbach was not pleased; they didn't credit him for the work. True, he never actually wrote body copy -- "all those little words," as he put it -- but the concepts, headlines, the look, the vibes, were his, as any DDBer knew.

During the agency's first 25 years, pundits would equate its cultural effect with that of Ernest Hemingway, Andy Warhol, George Bellows, Paul Klee, Jack Kerouac and Mickey Spillane. George Lois, one of DDB's most honored graduates, went further. Seeing how widely the creative revolution had caught on, he likened the Bernbach impact on advertising to that of Freud on the healing arts and sciences.

But by 1974, the agency's new business momentum had slowed. Publicly held since August 1964, DDB had problems that were not related to its creative work, but rather to failed diversification efforts that ate into its bottom line and to an inability to develop a solid account management reputation, essential for winning profitable package goods accounts. Still struggling in 1986, four years after Mr. Bernbach's death, DDB would merge with Needham, Harper & Steers to become revitalized as part of the bold, new Omnicom global agency network.

LITTLE USE FOR SCIENTISTS

Mr. Bernbach, who had little use for those he termed the "scientists of advertising," maintained that making ads was an art, not a science. In one of his most profound statements on creativity's endless challenges, he said: "However much we would like advertising to be a science -- because life would be simpler that way -- the fact is that it is not. It is a subtle, ever-changing art, defying formulization, flowering on freshness and withering on imitation; where what was effective one day, for that very reason will not be effective the next, because it has lost the maximum impact of originality."

Research had a role, he said. It could define a target audience and suggest the "right thing to say about a product," but he warned that it couldn't make people listen. "You've got to say it in such a way that people will feel it in their gut. Because if they don't feel it, nothing will happen."

TRANSCENDING ADVERTISING

Hall of Fame copywriter Bob Levenson has written that his late mentor's interests transended ad-making. They reflected his "sweeping, comprehensive examination of humanity" and included "biology and chemistry and genetics and evolution and art and literature and civilization itself." Above all, Mr. Levenson noted, "he was a civilized man" who invented "the wheel of persuasion. He could explain us to ourselves. Because he could explain us to ourselves, he could change men's minds. Levenson added that by changing men's minds, "maybe, just maybe [he] could change men themselves." And that, he concluded, would rank with "the great inventions of all time."

For advertising, such lofty achievements would bespeak a deep respect for consumer intelligence, and Mr. Bernbach's respect clearly showed. "To keep your ads fresh," he challenged his creatives, "you've got to keep yourself fresh. Live in the current idiom and you will create in it. If you follow and enjoy and are excited by the new trails in art, in writing, in industry, in personal relationships . . . whatever you do will naturally be of today."

SPURRING IDEAS

Mr. Bernbach's way -- tossing out concepts and headlines to spur ideas -- was famously symbolized when he pulled a discarded wad of paper from Helmut Krone's wastebasket, read the headline, "We're No. 2. We try harder," for a new Avis car rental campaign, and said, "That's your headline." He had the same comment when a copywriter grumbled, "What idiot changed the Chivas Regal bottle?"

An insightful, anecdote-rich and still-to-be-published "insider" book about DDB, "Nobody's Perfect," was written after Mr. Bernbach's death by Doris Willens, the agency's longtime public relations director. Here we learn that Mr. Bernbach, who brought fame and fortune to his creative people, also aroused resentment from many because, no matter how the credits and awards citations might read, his fingerprints would always be on their work. That was the trade-off.

Doris Willens also wrotes that Mr. Bernbach had carried in his shirt pocket a slip of paper on which he had written "Maybe he's right." And if Mr. Bernbach felt a client was right? The "Maybe he's right" reminder would take him back to his creatives with: "Think about what they're thinking about. I'll bet you can come up with an even better idea." And they'd set out to please him.

SELL AGENCY WORK

Mr. Bernbach believed his job was to sell DDB's work to clients, not to force it on them. But back at the shop, he wanted his creatives to generate their own ideas. He wouldn't tolerate people who asked, "What do you want, Bill?" And he also knew that even his creatives could occasionally go too far. On such occasions, he'd ask, "Is this a smart way to sell the product?"

The dazzling sampling of Mr. Bernbach's "smart way to sell the product" leadership that inspires this 50th anniversary salute clearly justifies the conviction that our 20th century's High Priest of Persuasion will enlighten global communications well beyond our Y2K anxieties and into Y3K as well.

Fred Danzig, who was editor for the last 10 of the 33 years he worked at Advertising Age, first met Bill Bernbach in 1962.

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