Why most advertising doesn’t work

Robert Townsend was the CEO of Avis in the USA in the 1960s. His problem was Hertz dominated the car rental market. There were lots of smaller brands: Dollar, Budget, Econ-o-Car, Alamo, Avis.

Robert Townsend knew he’d need something special to change this situation. He thought advertising would be the flag-bearer for change. Inside and outside his company.

So he wanted to know which was the best ad agency in New York. Apparently he asked a dozen agencies, which were the two best agencies in town. Everyone said themselves and Doyle Dane Bernbach. Which was how Townsend found out which was actually the best agency in town.

Ciaran McCabe, who used to be a suit at CDP, sent me the extract from Townsend’s book where he talks about the campaign DDB did for Avis. He mentions the massive effect it had on sales. What he doesn’t mention is the effect it had on the entire population of the USA.

When I was there, everyone had to have some form of ‘We Try Harder’ badge, or T shirt, or bumper sticker. The line, the philosophy, and consequently Avis became part of the language. So much so, that Marines in Viet Nam began wearing the bright ‘Dayglo’ badges on their helmets.

These were too easily spotted, so the military had to ask Avis to print camouflage versions. For any clients that want to know how to get work like that out of their agency, read the simple 6 point document that details the relationship between the agency and client.

Then see if you can answer the question, why doesn’t most advertising work?

(Robert Townsend)

Ultimately we stumbled on the right question: “How do we get five million dollars of advertising for one million dollars?” (Our competition has five dollars for each dollar we have, and yet we have to pay the same price for cars, insurance, rent, gas, oil, and people.)

Finally, Bill Bernbach said: “If you want five times the impact, give us ninety days to learn enough about your business to apply our skills, and then run every ad we write where we tell you to run it.

Our people work to see how effective their ideas are.

But most clients put our ads through a succession of assistant V.P.’s and V.P.’s of advertising, marketing, and legal until we hardly recognize the remnants.
If you promise to run them just as we write them, you’ll have every art director and copywriter in my shop moonlighting on your account.”

Ninety days later, Bill Bernbach came out to show Avis his tremendous ads. He said he was sorry but the only honest things they could say were that the company was second largest and that the people were trying harder. Bernbach said his own research department had advised against the ads, that he didn’t like them very much himself — but it was all they had, so he was recommending them.

We didn’t like them much at Avis either, but we had agreed to run whatever Bill recommended.
The rest is history. Our internal sales growth rate increased from 10 percent to 35 percent in the next couple of years.

Moral: Don’t hire a master to paint you a masterpiece and then assign a roomful of schoolboy-artists to look over his shoulder and suggest improvements.

To keep people at Avis and at Doyle Dane Bernbach from violating Bernbach’s vision of the ideal account, I wrote “The Avis rent a Car Advertising Philosophy,” had it framed and hung in everyone’s office (at both client and agency). It reads:

Avis Rent a Car
Advertising Philosophy

1. Avis will never know as much about advertising as DDB and DDB will never know as much about the rent a car business as Avis.

2. The purpose of the advertising is to persuade the frequent business renter
(whether on a business trip, a vacation trip, or renting an extra car at home) to try Avis.

3. A serious attempt will be made to create advertising with five times the
effectiveness (see #2 above) of the competition’s advertising.

4. To this end, Avis will approve or disapprove, not try to improve, ads which are submitted.
Any changes suggested by Avis must be grounded on a material operating defect (a wrong uniform for example).

5. To this end, DDB will only submit for approval those ads which they as an agency recommend. They will not “see what Avis thinks of this one.”

6. Media selection should be the primary responsibility of DDB. However, DDB is expected to take the initiative to get guidance from Avis in weighting of markets or special situations, particularly in those areas where cold numbers do not indicate the real picture. Media judgments are open to discussion. The conviction should prevail. Compromise should be avoided.

  • http://

    Hi Dave,

    Wouldn’t it be nice to apply these six great principles to the whole ad industry!

  • Kevin why are you repeating yourself? I hope it’s not why I think it is.

    Treat necessities as luxuries. Venerate the commonplace. Worship the ordinary.
    Page 100 I wish I was the person I’m pretending to be. Not including the bit about Kevin and his acid habit

  • http://

    Hi Jack,
    Personally I always liked Picasso’s quote.
    “The secret of life is to be rich, but live poor.”

  • http://

    Hi Dave,
    I’m Living Picasso’s life backwards.

    Hi Jack,
    My father had a terrible stutter when he got excited.
    I’ve inherited it in my right index finger.

    Now, what’s your excuse for repetition?

  • The longer you have nothing the more valuable it becomes.
    Page 121 of, I wish I was the person I’m pretending to be
    UK £4.99 US $8.95

  • As true now as when I read it 30 years ago. It’s just a pity that the people with the bucks haven’t read the book . . .

  • I seem to be being seriously censored. How many more of us are there on this site being castrated and whatever the female equivalent is? Probably something to do with Kevin’s finger. The irony is it’s called Brandrepublic with Russian constructivist influences. Brothers, sisters I cry freedom and down with totalitarian regimes who will not tolerate free expression. We will overcome the Trotskyite regime but I might not be there with you to see the final campaign.

  • Trotskyites Is this acceptable? Chris you seem to be saying that the aphorism I quote above is not original and that you read it thirty years ago. Both I and the publishers of my books believe that my work is completely original. Could you please provide the name of the book in which you read this aphorism and any other details that might help us track down this work. Clearly I take questioning my integrity very seriously and if you cannot provide the evidence I have requested then I would expect an apology which might help start to remove this stain on my creative integrity. I look forward to hearing from you.

  • http://

    Hi Jack,

    I suppose there is a tenuous link between Avis’s line: ‘We try harder’ and the psychology behind the old USSR regime, and the six points that Dave has mentioned as a pact between agency and client and Communist Party manifesto as we understood it in the West. However, I remember asking my Russian wife whether they ever had strikes on the Moscow Metro. She told me; “Y
    ou must be joking! If the drivers ever went on strike, the Police would beat them up. (Not exaxctly the picture we got in the UK is it?) During a recent strike, the ringleaders actually had their salary halved, whilst those who did not strike kept their salaries which does go part way to endorsing your: ‘The longer you have nothing the more valuable it becomes’ It also endorses the meaning of Avis’s line. However, Avis got that meaning across in three words, not ten.

  • No sign of Mr Gosling then. There’s a surprise.

  • I don’t know anything about your book – my comment was about the book written by the subject of this blog, Robert Townsend – Up The Organisation, which the blog’s author is quoting.
    Is it a condition of membership here that people have to reply to you instantly?

  • Hello Chris. I wrote to you but they have obviously censored it. Trottskyites. I said sorry because i thought you were talking about my quote
    The longer you have nothing the more valuable it becomes.
    Page 121 of, I wish I was the person I’m pretending to be
    UK £4.99 US $8.95
    And I enquired if you are the Chris that wrote the blog about sailing around for a couple of years.

  • Good lord yes . . ages ago.

  • I just wondered what happened next. Did you marry again etcetera?

  • No, I’m an old geezer living in sin and making little telly progs now . . . much better than marriage!

  • Bit like the cinema ad I did for a college. It just said, At Ystred Mynach College we like happy endings.

    Let’s not mention D&AD again

  • http://

    So are you a Hertz (NUMBER 1) or Avis (WE TRY HARDER) Jack?

  • Kev, In the previous Dave Morris blog Dave Bedwood said, Jack Gardner you are a genius. Nuf said. Wink touch side of nose. I have heard a big intake of breath over my Astred Mynach cinema ad. I sat in the cinema in Wales and listened to the audience when that ad came on. Nuf said