People are always asking me where advertising is headed.
Well, there are big changes happening in advertising right now.
We’ve never known anything like it before, have we?
New media gurus saying traditional advertising is dead.
The only possible future is social media.
Brand planners who know the only possible answer to any and every problem is to redefine the brand.
Creative directors who know that a new visual technique is the essential ingredient for any new ad campaign.
Everyone’s got a formula.
Everyone’s got a foolproof answer to what we should all be doing.
And yet, everyone knows we’ve never faced such uncertainty before.
In fact, I recently got hold of this letter.
It’s from the creative director of an ad agency, to the board of directors.
See if you can guess who.

“Dear ———,

Our agency is getting succesful,
That’s something to be happy about.
But it’s something to worry about, too.
And I don’t mind telling you I’m damn worried.
I’m worried that we’re going to fall into the trap of worshipping techniques instead of substance.
That we’re going to be drowned by superficialities, instead of buoyed up by solid fundamentals.
I’m worried that hardening of the creative arteries is beginning to set in.
There are a lot of great technicians in advertising.
And unfortunately they talk the best game.
They are the scientists of advertising.
But there’s one little rub.
Advertising is fundamentally persuasion.
And persuasion happens not to be a science, but an art.
It’s that creative spark that I’m so jealous of for our agency, and that I’m so desperately fearful of losing.
I don’t want academicians.
I don’t want scientists.
I don’t want people who do the right things.
I want people who do inspiring things.
In the past year I must have interviewed about 80 people, writers and art directors.
Many of them were from the so-called ‘best’ agencies around.
It was appalling to see how few of these people were genuinely creative.
Sure they had advertising know-how.
Yes, they were up on the latest techniques.
But look beneath the techniques and what do you find?
A sameness, a mental weariness, a mediocrity of ideas.
All this is not to say a technique is unimportant.
Superior technical skill will make the good better.
But the danger is in a preoccupation with technical skill.
Or the mistaking of technical skill for creative ability.
The danger lies in the temptation to employ people who have a formula for advertising.
The danger lies in the natural tendency to go after people that will not make us stand out in competition, but rather make us look like all the others.
We must emerge as a distinctive personality.
We must develop our own philosophy and not have the advertising philosophy of others imposed upon us.

Yours Respectfully”

All the problems in that letter are the same problems we all face.
The over-reliance on formulas.
The proliferation of people who call themselves creative but aren’t.
The ability to talk a good game succeeding over actual ability.
It could have been written last week.
But it wasn’t.
It was written by Bill Bernbach when he was creative director of Grey Advertising.
Two years before he opened Doyle Dane Bernbach.

In fact, he wrote that letter the week I was born.

  • Hi Dave

    Very interesting, as always.

    I am convinced that a new model is about to emerge from the shadows as a requirement from the recession, the changing media landscape and current global uncertainties (as well as cyclical changes).

    One thing I am picking up on, reading in between lines is fear. There’s a lot of fear out there (have a look at a recent post to my blog to see what I mean – http://bit.ly/d3KVvF ) at the moment – fear for jobs, fear for the future. Fear of budget cuts etc.

    Personally I see this as a real opportune time to redefine how we communicate across the board.

    And for that there is no formula.

    I’m with you – let’s bring back art. In fact, I had to describe what I did at a conference last year.
    I ended up saying that my team are alchemists between science and art.

    And I think that is where we all need to be. We need metrics, insight,footfall figures (science). But we need the creative spark to set it going like Frankenstein’s monster…

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    wow.. Dave.. just goes to show some things never change. i thought things were bad these days but i guess the message is it’s up to us to ‘keep it creative’ no excuses.

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    i love this ad. i think it’s genuinely ground breaking.

    a BIG idea/philosophy/brand positioning. brilliantly written and beautifully shot.

    BBH have done a fantastic job for Levis over the years. their work is one of the reasons i wanted to be a creative.

    but W&K have taken Levis into a new phase and it feels very fresh to me.

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    Wow Jane, that W&K Levi’s work is stunning. Massive, inspiring idea and beautifully executed across loads of media. Best thing I’ve seen all year.

  • Thank you Dave for that inspiring post.

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    Wow, nice twist at the end Dave. Did not see it coming.
    Where’d you find the letter?

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    Hi Thomas,
    I was reading a book called “A History Of The Advertising That Changed The History Of Advertising”.
    It was written about DDB and Bill Bernbach, after his death.
    It included several letters, interviews and memos that I hadn’t seen before.
    And I was struck that he wrote that letter 5 days before I was even born.

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    Hi Dave. Thanks for another inspiring post. And there was I, convinced that the infiltration of science was a relatively modern phenomenon. Long live chaos theory…

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    Wow… the cheapest copy of that book I can find is about £90… don’t suppose I could borrow it and post it back to you? Otherwise you’ll just have to serialize the whole thing in blog posts.

    I get a strange sense of excitement reading any word that came out of the man’s mouth. It might be optimism.

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    Hi Thomas,
    I’ve given the book back to the person I borrowed it from.
    The book isn’t by Bill Bernbach, it’s about him.
    It’s a collection of DDB advertising over 50 years, put together by Bob Levenson.
    I’ll do another post about a photocopy of a handwritten letter that’s in there.

  • Before any of us were born John Ruskin was urging any creative individual who would listen to ‘violate probability’. That was 200 years ago. Radically reassuring don’t you think? Ruskin and Bernbach knew a thing or two about ‘safe’ being the riskiest thing you can do.

  • Thanks Dave, for the perfect answer to the question I am being asked all of the time too. But this isn’t a new question, is it?. All through my career I’ve heard the same story: “The business is changing and if agencies don’t change, they’re going to die.” This gave rise to several people trying to re-invent the wheel with starting up B2B agencies, Direct agencies, Digital agencies, Social Marketing agencies etc. But at the end of the day, it’s all advertising isn’t it? The basic skill of an ad agency is the ability to produce advertisements. That may sound like a truism, but that has become a skill frequently submerged in the mass extra services that clients quite reasonably expect an agency to provide these days. In the end, no matter how perfect the marketing plan or strategy, regardless of how brilliantly evaluated the research, the day dawns when all that stands between the product and the consumer is the IDEA in the ad. Not the media buy (digital or traditional), not the ‘techniques’ or presentation, and not whether you use social media or social marketing. Given the ability of consumers to mentally filter-out ads every ad has to work harder for its living. What separates one agency from another are the IDEAS they produce. The ones that will win the race today must have the same ‘formula’ that agencies had 20 to 60 years before: The management that wants it; the client that will buy it; and most importantly the creative people who can conceive great ideas.

  • Dave, like you, Mike is so right. I had this debate recently when a radio station asked me to comment on proposed bans on alcohol advertising because it encourages binge drinking. I didn’t agree with this assumption. I said, current cigarette advertising doesn’t work. They said, there is no more cigarette advertising. I said, yes there is, on every packet. It says SMOKING KILLS, right there on the packet. That’s hard hitting message placement if ever there was. But it doesn’t work all that well does it? It’s ideas that work the best. Not ads.

  • Anything from Bill Bernbach remains today, essential reading for anyone in our business. Sadly, many newcomers have no idea who he is, or for that matter, what Doyle Dane Bernbach created that made great change.

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    @Dave, I knew it wasn’t by him – I just assumed it would contain a fair few things he said. I’ll have to keep my eye out in the charity shops…

    @Mike Do people really not know who he is? I assume the ones who don’t know don’t get all that far.

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    A classic Dave! So true and so inspiring.

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    I’m afraid Mike is right.
    Not only don’t they know Bill Bernbach, they don’t know Ed McCabe, George Lois, Mary Wells, or Helmut Krone,
    The real game-changing thinkers.
    Mainly, I think, because the people teaching them think the most important thing is to stay current.
    Which is just fashion masquerading as creativity.
    I feel another post coming on.

  • Nailed it in one, Dave. Fashion, as ever, will remain fundamental and fickle.

    Worth seeing but not worth remembering. Style vs substance.

    Looking forward to your blog on it already.

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    On the shoulders of giants, Dave. U tell ’em…

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    “Fashion masquerading as creativity”

    What a wonderful line. That is truly beautiful.

  • David,
    The folks you mentioned are all Americans. The company I headed in Asia out of Hong Kong, was The Ball Partnership, Asia’s most creative shop which was bought by WCRS. It was back then, that I learned about some brilliant Brits like David Abbott, Tim Delaney, Adiran Holmes, Tony Brignull, Steve Hayden, Steve Henry, Tim Mellors, my mate Neil French… and your good self. How many American’s know the brilliant work done by these people? Not too many. Can you imagine what they’ve missed?

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    Carl Ally anyone?

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    Hi Mike,
    For me, the real game-changing thinking in advertising started in New York, in the early 1960s, mainly done by those people.
    Volkswagen, Avis, Levys, Braniff, B&H 100s, Esquire.
    Of course the Brits you mention are great, too.
    But as Newton said: ‘(We are all) standing on the shoulders of giants’.
    John W.
    I trained at Carl Ally, so I love it.
    But for me Ed McCabe, who also learned there, was the best exponenet of Carl Ally thinking.

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    Did you know Grace & Rothschild Advertising, a small New York agency?
    Grace & Rothschild believes advertising grows out of the product, not market research.
    One I liked was ‘ingle ells, ingle ells. The holidays aren’t the same without J&B.’

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    The ‘Grace’ was Roy Grace.
    Famous as part of Grace & Noble.
    The team that pretty much did every great VW ad for 20 years.

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    I’m sure you know that Diane Rothschild is one of the few women inducted into the One Club Hall of Fame.

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    There was only ever one question worth asking.
    The type of question that sorts the wheat from the chaff.
    “What is the idea?”

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    It is very much alive.

    It’s just not visible at the moment because of this ridiculous obsession with online forcing advertisers budgets to be cut back by bean counters who do not understand the true value of revenue that ATL advertising delivers.

    Online is like the London Underground.
    Millions of travellers use it, but never at the same time or the system would become overloaded. It has a million individual mission statements because the individual comes first.

    ATL is like the Eurostar.
    It has a clear path and direction. It tells you exactly when and where it’s going,
    and you cannot get lost.

    ATL leads brands.
    Online gives brands leads.