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A Profile of Bill Bernbach

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Bill Bernbach
Screen grab via YouTube

A Brief Portrait of Advertising’s Greatest Influencer:

Born in the Bronx in New York City on August 13th, 1911, William (Bill) Bernbach is without question the most important and influential figure in the history of modern advertising. A founding partner of Doyle Dane Bernbach (DDB), he was a copywriter and creative director who changed the face of advertising, and almost every advertising agency today relies on the ideas and structure that Bill Bernbach provided.

Bill Bernbach's Education and Early Career

In 1932, and the age of 21, Bernbach earned a B.A. from New York University. He had majored in English, but also studied philosophy (something that would prove invaluable in his advertising career) as well as business administration and music (Bernbach played the piano).

1932 was hardly the best time to graduate from any kind of university as this was during the meteoric rise of the great depression. Unemployment was at record highs, morale in the country was at rock bottom. Fortunately for Bernbach, his family had connections with Schenley Distillers and in 1933 he was given a job in the mailroom. It was not a position he held for a long time. His skill with words, and his natural ambition, shone through and he wrote an ad for Schenley's American Cream Whiskey.

The ad ran, and Bernbach was promoted to the in-house advertising department.

After six successful years at Schenley Bernbach left to pursue loftier ambitions. He became a ghost-writer for Grover Whalen, head of the 1939 World's Fair, and from there entered above-the-line advertising at the William Weintraub agency (where he partnered with art director Paul Rand).

Following a two-year tour in World War II, Bernbach briefly worked for Coty, then moved on to a large agency called Grey Advertising. It was as this agency that Bernbach developed his skills even further, and by 1947 he was the Creative Director at Grey.

Bill Bernbach founds DDB with Ned Doyle and Mac Dane

During his years at Grey, Bernbach became good friends with James Edwin "Ned" Doyle and Maxwell "Mac" Dane. Doyle was an executive at Grey, and Dane was running a small advertising agency called Maxwell Dane, Inc. The agency lasted just five years, as Dane closed it to start Doyle Dane Bernbach (DDB) with Bill and Ned.

The early days at DDB were typical for any startup agency. Work was slim to begin with, and the three founders played a much greater role. Bill Bernbach was the creative powerhouse at the agency, creating ads that redefined the way in which advertising is perceived, viewed, created, sold and remembered.

Some of Bernbach's most notable campaigns include: Think Small and Lemon for VW Beetle (the VW Beetle campaign turned advertising on its head); We Try Harder for Avis; You Don't Have to be Jewish to Love Levy's for Levy's Rye Bread; Mikey for Life Cereal; It's So Simple for Polaroid.

Doyle Dane Bernbach Sets the Standard

Before DDB, art directors and copywriters worked separately. And that does not mean they worked at different desks, they were often in different departments, on different floors, or even in different buildings. A copywriter would write the copy for an ad, including the headline, and that copy would be passed to an art director who would apply visuals and a graphic treatment.

Bernbach saw the huge flaw in that model, and changed it. Considering two heads to be better than one, he placed art directors and copywriters in teams and asked them to figure the ad out as a team. This collaboration, which is responsible for the incredible work that came out of the agency, is also the model still adopted by advertising agency creative departments.

Under Bernbach's creative leadership and high standards, DDB grew into a giant of the advertising industry. It was THE place to work; the advertising they produced was consistently excellent, amazing both their clients and other agencies.

Bill Bernbach won many awards during his time at DDB, and was inducted into the Copywriters Hall of Fame in 1964. His legacy lives on, and anyone who works in advertising knows of his name, his work and his wisdom. He died on October 2nd 1982, in New York City, aged 71.

A Selection of Bill Bernbach's Best Quotes

Bill Bernbach is one of the most quoted, and quotable, people from the history of advertising. Here are just a few Bernbach quotes that never fail to inspire. DDB has a complete set of quotes here.

The most powerful element in advertising is the truth.

A great ad campaign will make a bad product fail faster. It will get more people to know it's bad.

Advertising is fundamentally persuasion and persuasion happens to be not a science, but an art.

Nobody counts the number of ads you run; they just remember the impression you make.

Word of mouth is the best medium of all.

You can say the right thing about a product and nobody will listen. You've got to say it in such a way that people will feel it in their gut. Because if they don't feel it, nothing will happen.

Just because you ad looks good is no insurance that it will get looked at. How many people do you know who are impeccably groomed…but dull?

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