William Bernbach (1911-1982) is responsible for creating many dramatic changes in the advertising industry after World War II. His gift for simple, yet memorable advertising came from his intense love of philosophy and literature. His campaigns were so successful that many are still cited today.
Bernbach was born in New York City on August 13, 1911 to Jacob and Rebecca Bernbach. As a child he enjoyed reading and writing verse and grew up with an appreciation of art. With the exception of a two-year tour of duty during World War II, Bernbach never strayed far from his roots in New York City. He attended New York University, receiving a bachelor's degree in literature in 1933. Bernbach also pursued studies in art, philosophy, and business administration that would serve him well during his career.
Starting at the Bottom
After graduation, Bernbach learned quickly that job hunting during the Depression years would be a challenge. Although he had decided upon advertising as his preferred field, he was unable to obtain work in that line. Bernbach started at the bottom of the corporate ladder when he found work in the mailroom of Schenley Distillers Company. With his mind focused on an advertising career, the young man found himself whiling away his hours creating ads for his employer. He submitted one of his ads to Schenley's in-house advertising department but received no response. After a time, he saw his words appear exactly as he had written them, in the New York Times. In fact, so much time had passed since his ad's submission that Schenley's ad men had lost the identity of its creator. Fortunately, it did not take Bernbach long to make sure that Lewis Rosenthiel, the president of Schenley's, learned of the ad's true origin. Rosenthiel appreciated Bernbach's creative spirit, not to mention his brazenness in approaching him about his own intellectual property. He gave Bernbach a raise and placed him in the advertising department.
During the 1939-40 New York World's Fair Bernbach worked as a ghostwriter for the promotion department. When the fair ended he joined the William H. Weintraub ad agency. With the onset of World War II, Bernbach put his career on hold and served for two years in the army. In 1943, he returned to New York and worked as the director of postwar planning for Coty, Inc until 1944. He left Coty to become vice president of advertising for Grey Advertising, Inc. From 1945 to 1949.
One of Bernbach's successes at Grey was his ad campaign for Ohrbach's Department Store. He took this budget-priced store, with its small advertising budget, and made it a household name through creative, humorous advertising. His ads were designed to be straightforward attention-getters-ones that would catch the consumer's eye while keeping the product name in front of the public. Bernbach believed that a successful advertising campaign was one in which the public remembered the product as well as the ad.
Opens Own Agency
During his years at Grey, Bernbach's creative talents were challenged by customers who insisted on providing their own input on ad development. He was painfully aware that Madison Avenue, where ad-men were afraid to say no to their client, was hopelessly mired in conformity. Bernbach was beginning to realize that input from the client is vital, but the ad agency bears ultimate responsibility for the message. He fulfilled the dream of establishing his own agency when he found a kindred spirit in Ned Doyle, another vice president at Grey whose philosophy mirrored his own. On June 1, 1949, Doyle and Bernbach joined forces with advertising executive Maxwell Dane and formed Doyle, Dane & Bernbach (DDB). The mix was perfect: Dane was the organizer and administered the company; Doyle was the financial and marketing wizard; and Bernbach was given full control over the advertising that the agency produced. He acted in the role of president from 1949 until 1967 and oversaw all ads before they were presented to any client. In their endeavor, the founders of Doyle, Dane & Bernbach brought a new philosophy to the advertising world.
The agency was immediately successful. Bernbach brought Ohrbach's, his client from Grey, with him to DDB. He soon added other clients to their growing list. One of his popular New York clients was the Henry S. Levy bakery. Bernbach's "You don't have to be Jewish to love Levy's" ads raised product awareness throughout the entire New York City area, making Levy's the biggest seller of rye bread in the city. With the Levy ad, as with the ads for Ohrbach's before it, Bernbach gave advertising depth by making it three dimensional: raising awareness, using humor, and selling the product.
Bernbach's successes continued. One of his best-remembered efforts were Avis Rent a Car. Putting Avis second next to Hertz was a stroke of genius. The U.S. public loves an underdog and in 1963 when Avis began declaring openly, "When you're No. 2, you try harder," Hertz began looking over its shoulder. The Avis ad campaign was directly responsible for increasing Avis's market share by 28 percent, and closing the gap with frontrunner Hertz.
The other phenomenally successful ad campaign to spring from Bernbach's fertile mind was for the German automobile manufacturer, Volkswagen. In 1959, Bernbach designed an ad for the Volkswagen Beetle, placing the car in an upper corner of the ad surrounded by a sea of white space and placing just two words at the bottom of the ad: "Think Small." The ad was totally different from other automobile ads and sales of the VW Beetle soared up to 500,000 cars in a single season.
Clients flocked to DDB. Other successes included El Al Airlines; Polaroid, and Rheingold Beer. Volkswagen's ads were so successful, they remained a client for over 40 years. In 1968, Bernbach was elevated to chairman and chief executive officer, where he remained until 1974. He advanced to chairman of the executive committee and chief executive officer from 1974 until 1976. In 1976, Bernbach celebrated his 65th birthday and, according to the policies of the corporation, he retired. He was asked, however, to return as chairman of the executive committee, where he remained until 1982, overseeing the advertising activities of the firm. The success of DDB remains unparalleled in advertising history. Starting with $1 million in billing during its first year, by 1982 DDB billings has risen to approximately $1 billion.
An Unconventional Philosophy
Bernbach's advertising philosophy went contrary to convention. His ads were always fresh, simple, and intelligent, yet exuded energy. Often self-deprecating, they were also frequently humorous, always tasteful, and artistic. He used shadows in photos to make a point, and especially liked working with dark shadows. He advocated a soft-sell technique to draw in the consumer that resulted in the product not getting lost in the advertising. If Bernbach believed a product could not live up to its advertising, he would not take on the client.
Bernbach's love of philosophy inevitably led to his study of human motivation. He realized that emotions such as love, hate, greed, hope, fear, etc., drove people to action and he tried to apply these emotions to his advertising in order to get the reader's attention. Bernbach was clear in his belief that his audience was intelligent and literate. He respected creativity in people and encouraged those in the advertising field to use their wits. He often said "Everything you write … everything on a page-every word, every graphic symbol, every shadow-should further the message you're trying to convey." Bernbach frequently addressed audiences of advertising executives to explain that advertising is not formulaic: a successful ad campaign is not run on mathematical equations where every ad follows the same steps. Creative advertising was, to Bernbach, composed more of intuition and a sense of artistry than of analytical prowess.
The Personal Side
Bernbach married Evelyn Carbone on June 5, 1938. They had two sons, John Lincoln and Paul. Throughout his life, Bernbach developed an appreciation for art and literature. He was a quiet man who enjoyed reading poetry and listening to jazz and classical music with his wife. He appreciated creative people and helped open an industry to talented people from a variety of ethnic and religious backgrounds.
Bernbach's love for the arts and philosophy immersed him in an active social life outside of DDB. He was a Distinguished Adjunct Professor at New York University and vice chairman of Lincoln Center's film committee. Bernbach was on the board of directors and a member of the executive committee of the Legal Aid Society, the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, and the Harper's Magazine Foundation. He was on the board of directors of the International Eye Foundation, Mary Manning Walsh Home, Menninger Foundation, and Friend of American Art in Religion, Inc., and chairman of the board and executive committee member of the Municipal Arts Society.
During the last years of his long and prolific life, Bernbach struggled with leukemia. He lost the battle on October 2, 1982 and died in the Bronx, New York, at the age of 71. He is remembered as a driving force in the advertising field, one who was responsible for placing creative people in positions previously held by skilled but uncreative businessmen. By doing this, he changed the nature of U.S. advertising.
Further Reading on William Bernbach
Advertising Age, October 11, 1982, p. 80; August 11, 1986.
Forbes, June 20, 1983.
Independent, June 1, 1998.
Encyclopedia Britannica Online, http://members.eb.com (February 22, 1999).
William Bernbach, http://uts.cc.utexas.edu/~hyeong/adman.html (February 19, 1999).