In Search of Bernbach, Advertising's Greatest Thinker

An Interview in Honor of Ad Legend's 100th Birthday

By Published on .

Editor's note: Aug. 13 would mark the 100th birthday of advertising legend Bill Bernbach. He was named the single most influential person in advertising in the 20th century by Ad Age , but unlike others in the industry, Mr. Bernbach didn't leave behind an opus in book form. So David Andrew Lloyd took it upon himself to track down the man and "interview" him.]

To learn the secret behind such classics as his Volkswagen "Think Small" ads and Avis "We Try Harder" campaign, I decided I must find Bill Bernbach, the leading force behind the Creative Revolution.

Bill Bernbach, ad legend
Bill Bernbach, ad legend

He had the ability to analyze a product's qualities, and extract its raw personal emotion. He knew a place where he could actually touch the human soul.

With his American Tourister Gorilla as my guide, we traveled over the Mountain of Focus Group Research, through the dark Jungle of Behavioral Sciences and past the Tomb of the Unknown Edsel. Eventually, we found Bernbach in the Valley of Intuition, celebrating his 100th birthday.*

LLOYD: What's the key element for developing effective advertising?

BERNBACH: The purpose of advertising ... is to sell. If that goal doesn't permeate every idea you get, every word you write, every picture you take, you're phony, and you ought to get out of the business.

LLOYD: Then how did you justify your radical style of showing empty bottles in ads, teeth marks in Levy's bread, models without smiles?

Bernbach talked Avis into embracing its No. 2 position.
Bernbach talked Avis into embracing its No. 2 position.
BERNBACH: I realized that the growth of television, along with all the existing media, would result in consumers being bombarded with more messages than they could absorb. So the advertiser would have to deliver his message in a different way -- memorably and artfully -- if he was going to be "chosen" by the consumer.

LLOYD: What was wrong with the old scientific approach?

BERNBACH: I warn you against believing that advertising is a science. Artistry is what counts. The business is filled with great technicians, and unfortunately they talk the best game ... but there's one little problem. Advertising happens to be an art, not a science.

LLOYD: Sounds blasphemous.

BERNBACH: The more you research, the more you play it safe, and the more you waste money. Research inevitably leads to conformity.

LLOYD: At least you won't offend anyone.

BERNBACH: (Laughing) Eighty-five percent of all ads don't even get looked at. Think of it! You and I are the most extravagant people in the world. Who else is spending billions of dollars and getting absolutely nothing in return? We were worried about whether or not the American public loves us. They don't even hate us. They just ignore us.

LLOYD: So how do you get into that desirable 15%?

BERNBACH: The only difference is an intangible thing that businessmen are so suspicious of , this thing called artistry. ... Try riding the bus ... and you just watch the people with Life magazine flipping though the pages at $60,000 a page, and not stopping and looking. The only thing that can stop them is this thing called artistry that says, "Stop, look, this is interesting."

LLOYD: Shouldn't market research improve those odds?

BERNBACH: Research can be dangerous. It should give you facts and not make judgments for you. ... We are too busy measuring public opinion that we forget we can mold it.

LLOYD: Advertisers still need to judge their ideas against something tangible.

BERNBACH: I have found, by and large -- I know this is heresy -- the better the marketing man, the poorer the judge of an ad. That's because he wants to be sure of everything, and you can't be sure of everything.

LLOYD: Doesn't it seem logical to test your ads?

BERNBACH: (Grinning.) I'm beginning to believe, incidentally, that logic is one of the great obstacles to progress.

LLOYD: How do you suggest advertisers make their "guesses" accurate?

BERNBACH: Know his product inside and out. Your cleverness must stem from knowledge of the product. ... It's hard to write well about something you know little about.

LLOYD: Ha! That's research. Why can't you admit advertising is a science?

BERNBACH: (Annoyed.) The greatest advances in the history of science came from scientists' intuition. Listen to one of the greatest scientific minds talking on the subject of physicists. "The supreme task of the physicist is to arrive at those universal elementary laws from which the cosmos can be built up by pure deduction. There is no logical path to these laws. Only intuition can reach them." The scientist's name was Albert Einstein, the greatest scientist of them all!

Volkswagen ads are often held up as examples of the height of the creative revolution.
Volkswagen ads are often held up as examples of the height of the creative revolution.
LLOYD: Nevertheless, clients want to feel secure before spending their money.

BERNBACH: In advertising the big problem facing the client is that he wants to be sure that his new campaign is foolproof. Even we can't be sure that there are certain things that an ad must contain. They are no more predictable than that a play will be a hit or a book a best seller.

LLOYD: Can you blame them for being cautious?

BERNBACH: Playing it safe can be the most dangerous thing you can do.

LLOYD: It's their money. It's their right to make that decision.

BERNBACH: We don't permit the client to give us ground rules. It's bad for the client.

LLOYD: Come on, Bill. That's a bit egotistical.

BERNBACH: I don't mean to be arrogant, but we have deep convictions about our work, and we believe that one of the greatest services we can give the client is to honestly state our convictions.

LLOYD: You've influenced some of the biggest names in advertising, but even you must admit the "creative revolution" brought about some irrelevant zaniness.

BERNBACH: The trouble with a lot of our emulators is they just put cleverness down. A picture of a man standing on his head would get attention, but the reader would feel tricked by the gimmick -- unless we were trying to sell a gadget to keep change in his pocket.

LLOYD: You were legendary for hiring young, untested talent and turning them into superstars. But, considering the economy, how would you overlook their inevitable blunders?

BERNBACH: (Smiling.) You know, something that 's almost like a mistake is what gets a person's attention.

LLOYD: If everything you tell me is true, why are there so many bad ads?

BERNBACH: Urged by the instinct to survive and the habit of eating, they go along with guidance they don't really believe in. The result is inevitable: Work without conviction, work without effectiveness, work without personality, work that is cold arithmetic instead of warm persuasion.

*Answers are actual Bernbach quotes.

David Andrew Lloyd is a third-generation Bernbachian. His first boss, Chuck Bua, a five-time Clio Award winner, worked under Bernbach at DDB. Lloyd now lives in Studio City where he writes film and TV comedy -- because that 's all he can take seriously.
Most Popular
In this article: