Bill Bernbach and the art of persuasion.


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Back in 1947, the then-Creative Director of Grey Advertising in New York fired off a memo that began the biggest metamorphosis the advertising business has ever known. It read:

“There are a lot of great technicians in advertising. And unfortunately, they talk the best game. They know all the rules. They can tell you that showing people in an ad will get you greater readership. They can tell you that a sentence should be this short or that long. They can give you fact after fact after fact. They are the scientists of advertising. But there’s one little rub. Advertising is fundamentally persuasion, and persuasion happens to be not a science, but an art.”

The Creative Director that composed that memo was William (Bill) Bernbach (1911-1982), who two years later would co-found an agency that would become the first to demonstrate the success a marketer can attain by fully serving the interests of the reader or viewer.

Bernbach would have celebrated his 100th birthday this weekend, and this provides a fitting time to pay homage to the man who single-handedly saved us from the hacks of the “Mad Men” era.

Bill not only supervised and championed great creative work for clients like Volkswagon, Avis, American and El-Al Airlines, Polaroid, Ohrbach’s and many many others. He elevated advertising into an art form that people actually enjoyed, critiqued and talked about.

He proved that smaller clients with smaller budgets can outperform industry leaders just by forming a human connection with the audience. He changed the way agencies worked. His model of creating teams of writers AND art directors to tackle creative assignments has been the standard in the industry for going on 50 years. And above all, he inspired tens of thousands of creative people to get into the business (yours truly included) by demonstrating the ad business to be a place where creative ideas could be championed.

Bill was a storyteller. His team worked endlessly to discover the “story” DDB’s clients had to tell. Then they told them in a way that was relevant, respectful, and above all, true.

Despite being associated with some of the most attention-getting advertising of his or any era, Bernbach never gave short shrift to the business disciplines behind it. He famously said “good ideas build sales, but great advertising builds factories.”

Bernbach’s point of “art vs. science” in his memo of 64 years ago is also of relevance to marketing practitioners of today. Endless articles, ebooks and webinars are published that fill us with “best practices” and “how-tos” for the various new media and social platforms. But what often gets lost in all this is the importance of the art of persuasion.

Today, we might give such thinking a haughty name such as “permission marketing.” Bill just called it “treating the customer with respect.”

What do you say we pay that respect forward?


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