There was a very smart client in New York, in the early 60s, called Bob Townsend.
He took over at a struggling little car rental company called Avis.
4,000 years before, Lao Tzu (the founder of Taoism) said: “The wise man knows he doesn’t know. The fool doesn’t know he doesn’t know.”
Well Bob Townsend was a wise man.
He knew he didn’t know about advertising.
But he knew he needed a great agency to help turn Avis round.
So he contacted a dozen or so of the top agencies on Madison Avenue.
He asked them a simple question: “Who are the two best advertising agencies in New York?”
All twelve agencies gave him the same answer.
“The two best agencies are ourselves, and Doyle Dane Bernbach.”
So, since everyone agreed that DDB was one of the best agencies in town, Bob Townsend gave them the account.
What happened next is probably the best advertising campaign ever.
And it revolutionised Avis’s fortunes.
Like most of DDB’s work it was revolutionary, iconoclastic, ground-breaking.
My generation grew up on Bill Bernbach.
He was the man who invented good advertising.
Before Bernbach, and DDB, advertising was just about billing.
The winner was the one who had the biggest agency making the most money.
So what if the ads were crass and patronising?
Who cared as long as you were getting rich?
Bernbach changed all that.
He made it about creativity.
The winner was the one who did the best work.
Work you were proud of.
Work that treated people with intelligence.
Work that everyone in the agency was thrilled to be a part of.
We hoovered up every word Bill Bernbach said.
But I’m aware lots of youngsters today just think he’s an old dinosaur.
Part of the dim and distant past.
The other day I saw a photocopy of some hand written notes from Bill Bernbach.
See if it looks like a dinosaur wrote it.

“Merely to let your imagination run riot, to dream unrelated dreams, to indulge in graphic acrobatics, is NOT being creative.
The creative person has harnessed their imagination.
They have disciplined it so that every thought, every idea, every line they draw, every light and shadow in every photograph they take, makes more vivid, more believable, more persuasive the original theme or product advantage they have decided they must convey.”

“It is ironic that the very thing that is most suspect in business, that intangible thing called creativity, turns out to be the most practical tool available to it.
For it is only creativity that can compete with all the shocking news events and violence in the world for the attention of the consumer.”

“Principles endure, formulas don’t.
You must get attention to your ad.
This is a principle that will always be true.
HOW you get attention is a subtle ever-changing thing.
What is attractive one day may be dull the next.”

“Logic and over-analysis can immobilise and sterilise an idea.
It’s like love: the more you analyse it the faster it disappears.”

Personally I think we can still learn a lot from Bernbach.
As he says, “Principles endure, formulas don’t”
Today that could read, “Technology changes, people don’t.”
We still have to out think the competition.
That’s why, whatever field you’re in, you can learn from the greats who went before.
Isaac Newton described it as “Standing on the shoulders of giants.”
The way an artist can learn from studying Caravaggio.
Or a musician can learn from studying Mozart.
A writer can learn from studying Shakespeare.
A director can learn from studying Orson Welles.
A footballer can learn from studying Cruyff.
A boxer can learn from studying Ali.
A military man can learn from studying Rommel.
The philosopher George Santayana said,
“Those who do not learn from the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Maybe that’s what’s happened.
No one wants to learn from the past, which is why we’re repeating it.

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    I have been meaning to comment on your blog for a while now, but never mustered up the courage to put my views through. But after reading this post, I couldn’t help myself. It was almost poetic.

    I must admit I haven’t been reading your blog for too long. It was after I attended your talk a few weeks ago that I started going through your work and stumbled onto your blogs, and I haven’t looked back since. I’ve nearly read all your blogs for the past one year, and still reading. They have made me stop and think on more than one occasion.

    I agree with you completely. Without learning from our past, there is no way we can head into a brighter future. People in today’s world (the ‘instant-generation’) all want to go for the quick fix- the easy way out. But as we have seen time and again, in advertising, there is no easy way out. As you mentioned in your last post, there is no simple formula to pave the road ahead. You have to gather as much information as possible from as many sources and possible, but at the end of the day, you have to be brave enough to take that ‘creative leap’, and hope to God you land on something soft.

    There is no end to learning. In order to be a good ad-man, there has to be that innate hunger for knowledge- about everything. And of course, the all important imagination to put that knowledge into practice.

    I would just like to say thank you for sharing your thoughts and views on this roller coaster of an industry. Getting such insights from one of the greats is truly a privilege.

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    “We’re number two, so we try harder” worked very well and was genius back in Bernbach’s day, but now Avis just use the shortened “We try harder” which is rubbish… They’ve never had advertising as good as theirs was in the 60’s, which is maybe why they’ve been too scared to change the formula.

  • I find it extremely interesting that most ad students, and ad teachers for that matter, do not feel it is important to look back at the work of people like Bernbach. I recently finished reading Bill Bernbach’s Book and The Copy Book and was struck by the fact that the people at the top of their game then spoke about advertising in a very similar fashion to the people at the top today.

    For the best the idea is always paramount. With all of the fancy executions we have today many people seem to forget that.


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    Thanks a lot, was it you I talked to in the street after the APG talk?
    I agree, they’ve never been able to top it so they keep going back to it in a half-arsed way.
    I agree, all the smart people learn from what went before.
    But remember what Lao Tzu said, “Seek not to walk in the footsteps of the great men. Seek what they sought.”

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    Or as Lord Bolingbroke said ‘History is philosophy – teaching by example.’

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    Hey Dave,

    Unfortunately no. I had to get back to work right after your talk. On hindsight, I should have put work on hold and have a chat.

    Oh well…hopefully sometime soon…

    I agree with that point. It must be remembered that looking back at those great pieces of work and people should be used as the inspiration that adds fuel to the fire that is creativity…thats the only way great can become greater on that never-ending path to greatest….

  • Agreed, though if only more agencies would see that learning does not mean “let’s do the gorilla/old spice guy…”

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    If only it were that simples, Rob.

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    Example A:-
    The winner of the 2010 European 10,000 metres.

  • John Kelley told me that the Avis ‘when you’re no 2, you try harder’ idea almost didn’t happen. The team had thrown it in the bin. Bernbach came in and asked them how they were getting on. They half-heartedly showed him their ideas. He wasn’t impressed, and started rummaging in the bin to see what they’d ditched.

    He pulled out their ‘we try harder’ scamps and said ‘This is it!’

    Or words to that effect.

    Lucky he didn’t go through my bin, otherwise the Avis line might have ended up involving a banana skin, a coffee winder and an expired travel card.