100 Most Influential Women in Advertising

Why Phyllis Robinson Reminds Us of the Importance of Breaking Rules

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Phyllis Robinson

Copywriter, Doyle Dane Bernbach

I had long admired Phyllis Robinson's work before I really got to know her, which wasn't until after she had officially retired from DDB. We became friends during the time of Omnicom's creation when she, Bob Gage and Helmut Krone helped me chart the path for what was to become DDB Worldwide. I could always count on Phyllis for a frank opinion -- sometimes brutally frank -- or for practical advice, whether on big strategic issues or on everyday challenges, like her tip for dealing with writer's block.

"Just sit down and write," she said. "Even if you wind up throwing out 99% of it. That 1% could be a gold mine."

As I got to know her better I realized that , as Bill Bernbach's first copy chief, Phyllis set the tone for the creative culture we so cherish at DDB. She raised the bar, and her example can offer valuable insight for the industry today.

Phyllis was famous as a discoverer and nurturer of talent. Mary Wells Lawrence was one of her many recruits who, like Phyllis herself, went on to the Copywriters Hall of Fame . When reviewing a portfolio, Phyllis took pride in searching through ads that had been rejected or ugly little ads that might contain some spark, which, to her, revealed a potentially great talent. She stressed the importance of finding the right match-ups for creative teams. As she told one interviewer, "Two volatile people can produce great advertising -- or maybe just blood on the wall. You have to mix it up and see what happens."

Today as ever, an agency's only real competitive advantage lies in the talent it finds and how that talent is nurtured and employed.

Creators of today's advertising would also do well to share Phyllis Robinson's passionate aversion to bombast, hype and flash. Phyllis herself personified substance and authenticity -- Mary Wells said she'd buy a used car from her -- and in large part, Phyllis achieved authenticity in advertising by writing the way people talk: "You don't have to be Jewish to love Levy's," or "It let me be me" for Clairol. And for Polaroid's One Step, the banter Phyllis crafted for James Garner and Marriette Hartley was so natural and believable, people thought the stars of the advertising were actually married to one another in real life.

Finally, Phyllis reminds us of the importance of breaking rules. She said: "We throw out the rules every day and make up our own." It was, in fact, her rule-breaking work for a department store that sparked Bill Bernbach's creative revolution. Most people would agree that advertising changed forever when Volkswagen, about to introduce the Beetle to the U.S., said: "We want the agency that does Ohrbach's."

You'll do well to take up the simple challenge Phyllis Robinson gave to her staff back in the '60s: "Do the kind of work nobody else is doing."

Who knows, maybe you'll start a whole new creative revolution.

Keith Reinhard is chairman emeritus at DDB Worldwide.

See more: Most Influential Women in Advertising: The Innovators

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