Seventy Years Later Bill Bernbach's Advice Still Applies

By Brian Jacobs The Cog Blog Archives

In the old full-service days, people never used to go into “media.”  They went into advertising and specialized in media.  Or they went into sales and specialized in selling ad space or time.  Divide or no divide, today it seems everyone is in “advertising.”  Not just those involved in its creation, but those who sell it, who buy it, who plan it, even those who manage the technology that allows those buying it to buy it.  Many are too far removed from the creation of the advertising even to know what they’re placing, let alone how it came into existence.

Those involved (in the broadest sense) in the creative process understand their role in the team.  A media professional’s part is about understanding where, when, how and to whom the message can most effectively be aimed.

I would say that’s pretty key, and should happen early on and as a major contributor to the creative process.  But I would also say that the form and content of the message trumps all.  After all, the best media plan, the cheapest buy, the cleverest algorithm, the most amazing technology all count for nothing if the message is crap.

Ad agency people have to care about the message.  It’s their product.  Media people need to understand everything about the message in order to do their jobs well.  Sales people should at the very least care sufficiently to know what the message is.

You may be brilliant at technology or understand all there is to know about attribution and click-through rates.  But these are a means to an end; the end is about making the message work as hard as possible.

In May, 1947, Bill Bernbach (pictured at top) wrote a letter to all staff at his agency, Doyle Dane Bernbach.  Here’s part of what he wrote:

“There are a lot of great technicians in advertising.  And unfortunately, they talk the best game.  They know all the rules.  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 not to be a science, but an art.”

Seventy years later there may be more science than there used to be in advertising but it’s still more art than anything else.

Many years ago I led the team responsible for this ad for The Observer.  I remember the media director at the agency (also my boss) telling me I had to produce a 30-second cut-down.  I refused.  We won awards (part of the strategy was to influence the agencies; having our ad played for free at award ceremonies was an efficient way to do that) and the whole campaign was a commercial success.  No doubt if I had listened the media reach would have been higher.

Look at this ad for Audi.  Exactly the same points about the car’s attributes could have been communicated by a guy standing in a room with a flip-board. Sadly, I bet someone's reading this and thinking about two-second ads for FB featuring just that on the basis that two seconds is all you need.  Believe me it wouldn’t work as well.

As a media guy you simply can’t become as good as you could be in an organization focused more on delivering margins, or science over great advertising.  And yes, I know someone will say those things aren’t incompatible and in theory they’re right, but in practice the evidence is that they’re wrong.

Care about the work!  If you don’t, can’t or couldn’t care less then you’re in something other than advertising.

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