HISTORY's Moment in Media: DDB Ushers In the Creative Revolution of Advertising

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Once upon a time, advertisements were covered with copy. Think of the old-timey ads in colonial-era newspapers, describing all the goods sold by a blacksmith or haberdasher. Or consider the relatively more modern ads you'd find in midcentury magazines for extravagantly chrome-plated autos, with an illustration, yes, but then all that type listing the specs of the engine and the modern conveniences in the cabin.

It wasn't until the so-called creative revolution of the 1960s that advertising became something resembling what we see today: creative, bold and designed to stand out and get your attention. About the idea and the emotion, about entertaining you. Designed to make you want the product, not just to tell you what the product is.

And the creative revolution can trace its roots, more than anywhere else, to the pioneering agency Doyle Dane Bernbach, which opened its doors on June 1, 1949 -- 72 years ago this month -- and its visionary leader, Bill Bernbach.

Ad Age once described him as "the single most influential creative force in advertising's history."

Bernbach worked at Grey Advertising in the years after World War II, becoming vice president responsible for art and copy before he was 40. He befriended Ned Doyle, a vice president and account supervisor there, and together with Maxwell Dane, who ran his own small agency, the trio launched Doyle Dane Bernbach in a walkup office at 350 Madison Avenue -- later, for many years the global headquarters of Condé Nast. Doyle would handle accounts. Dane would run the business. Bernbach would lead creative. They started with 13 employees.

By 1982, according to Bernbach's New York Times obituary, the agency had grown to 2,900 employees and 27 branch offices in 16 countries around the world. Annual billings, at $500,000 in 1949, reached $1.2 billion in 1982.

Their first big account, brought over from Grey, was for a New York department store called Ohrbach's, which specialized in no-frills shopping for high-fashion clothes. "High is the world for Ohrbach's fashions," Bernbach's copy read, over a photo of a well-dressed model. Below it: "Low is the world for Ohrbach's prices."

In its minimalism, and its ability to truthfully sell a brand in a lightly humorous way, it set the model for the legendary DDB work to come, what that Times obit called the agency's "low-key, provocative, and usually believable sales messages."

Bernbach and his team often leaned into what might be seen as a negative to truthfully, and charmingly, sell the product: "Think small" for the Volkswagen Beetle (which really was small). "We Try Harder" for Avis (which really was No. 2 to dominant Hertz). The classic "You don't have to be Jewish to love Levy's" for Brooklyn-made rye bread.

But DDB's revolutions happened behind the scenes, too. Because the founding partners were committed to bringing in the most creative talent, they hired many who had been overlooked at more traditional agencies, including Phyllis K. Robinson as the first female copy chief in U.S. history. Long before diversity was a priority for most corporations, Bernbach and his colleagues realized that they'd get the best ideas, and the best range of perspectives, from a creative team with different backgrounds.

Bernbach and Robinson were also the first to pair copywriters and art directors into creative teams that work together and allow images and copy to inspire and influence each other. Previously, no one saw any need for the copy and the art to coordinate.

Almost three-quarters of a century later, nearly all the DDB innovations remain standard practice, starting from the foundation of the creative team.

And the DDB name nearly made it to its 72nd birthday, too.

For a bit it seemed like it wouldn't -- in 1986, as the agency floundered after Bernbach's death, there was a near-disastrous merger with Chicago's Needham Harper Worldwide that turned into a three-way tie-up with the agency network BBDO, leaving the combined DDB Needham Worldwide as a unit within the then-new holding company Omnicom. But within a few years the agency righted itself, and in 1999, on its 50th birthday, it jettisoned the Needham name. For more than a dozen years, it was once again proudly DDB. But then in 2012, DDB Worldwide acquired the hot U.K. agency Adam & Eve, and the London office became known as adam&eve/DDB. Then, on May 31, 2023, one day shy of that birthday, DDB NYC announced its own merger, becoming adam&eveDDB.

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