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Bill Bernbach on Technique, Substance & What Makes Advertising Great


Dear ______________ :

Our agency is getting big. That’s something to be happy about. But it’s something to worry about, too, and I don’t mind telling you I’m damned worried. I’m worried that we’re going to fall into the trap of bigness, that we’re going to worship techniques instead of substance, that we’re going to follow history instead of making it, that we’re going to be drowned by superficialities instead of buoyed up by solid fundamentals. I’m worried lest hardening of the creative arteries begin to set in.

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 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 tell you that body copy should be broken up for easier reading. 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.

It’s that creative spark that I’m so jealous of for our agency and that I am so desperately fearful of losing. I don’t want academicians. I don’t want scientists. I don’t want people who do the right things. I want people who do inspiring things.

In the past year I must have interviewed about 80 people – writers and artists. Many of them were from the so-called giants of the agency field. It was appalling to see how few of these people were genuinely creative. Sure, they had advertising know-how. Yes, they were up on advertising technique.

But look beneath the technique and what did you find? A sameness, a mental weariness, a mediocrity of ideas. But they could defend every ad on the basis that it obeyed the rules of advertising. It was like worshiping a ritual instead of the God.

All this is not to say that technique is unimportant. Superior technical skill will make a good ad better. But the danger is a preoccupation with technical skill or the mistaking of technical skill for creative ability. The danger lies in the temptation to buy routinized men who have a formula for advertising. The danger lies In the natural tendency to go after tried-and-true talent that will not make us stand out in competition but rather make us look like all the others.

If we are to advance we must emerge as a distinctive personality. We must develop our own philosophy and not have the advertising philosophy of others imposed on us.

Let us blaze new trails. Let us prove to the world that good taste, good art, and good writing can be good selling.

Bill Bernbach

I just… i mean… it’s all so… perfect. This is perfect.

Bernbach is already top of mind for me as I look for people in creative business that I can learn from…

In this note (found here) is a depth of vision showing more than just creative spark.

More than maverick, “fuck it!” creativity. (His work was so good it makes me want to reduce him to this kind of intense, unsafe fire.)

As I build my own company, as we go through the stages of boom, excitement, feedback, plateau, opportunity, reaching, spinning up, scaling, etc., how could I possibly keep this top of mind enough?

I can’t even think of a favorite piece of this quote.

“Anybody who wants more money, a better job, or a bigger house is ultimately just wishing for a new set of anxieties.”

Merlin Mann

Jennifer Senior on a New Script for Parents

The one mantra no parent ever questions is, “All I want is for my children to be happy.” And don’t get me wrong: I think happiness is a wonderful goal for a child. But it is a very elusive one. Happiness and self-confidence, teaching children that is not like teaching them how to plow a field. It’s not like teaching them how to ride a bike. There’s no curriculum for it. Happiness and self-confidence can be the byproducts of other things, but they cannot really be goals unto themselves. A child’s happiness is a very unfair burden to place on a parent. And happiness is an even more unfair burden to place on a kid. [...]

Absent having new scripts, we just follow the oldest ones in the book – decency, a work ethic, love — and let happiness and self-esteem take care of themselves. I think if we all did that, the kids would still be all right, and so would their parents, possibly in both cases even better.”

Jennifer Senior

Campaigns for George

Ever heard of George McGovern? There’s a story about this guy’s run for presidency that’s instructive for any of us looking to do good work in the world.

See that picture above? It’s a bunch of artists contributing pieces to a large mural in support if George’s run for presidency. (He ran against Nixon.)

I randomly stumbled upon this picture while staying in a friend’s house. It was in a book about artists and writers and the parties they threw in the Hamptons from 1950-1980.

As I flipped through the pages, taking in all the famous faces pictured in house parties and on sandy beaches with cigarettes and coffee mugs and cocktail glasses in their hands, a fable about these people evolved in my head.

It made me think about my own work and my own friends who are doing good work. It made me think about some parties I’ve attended and the faces of other people who were there.

And a kind of fable about the people in this particular picture (the one above, here’s a bigger version) sort of came clear in my head.

Here’s some ideas that stuck with me.

(Please spare any political tirades or history lessons. I don’t know much about this time or these people. Don’t care to.)

Must have been a lot of work getting everyone together to work on this.

I bet these artists think they’re doing something big. I bet they think they are big deals.

I have a little reach myself. I’ve been in (extremely minor) situations where I felt similarly, when someone thought my contribution would help in an important way.

“People pay attention to me. I’m sort of a big-ish deal,” they think to themselves. “Sure, I’ll help support the cause.”

I have never heard of George McGovern. I can paint a bit of a picture: he was the democrat running against Nixon. Artists love dems, traditionally… or so I’ve heard.

“Hey guys, let’s do something big, something important to make a stand. To make a statement and support this guy. We can’t let the republicans ruin this country. Let’s do something together… let’s make it count.”

But then George didn’t win.

What did they feel then? What do they think looking back? Did they already know they’re help wasn’t going to matter? “We tried. Whatever. Meh.”

Were they discouraged? “Last time I ply my oars for this backwards fucking party… backwards fucking country, too.”

Again this is all some fable in my head. I don’t know if any of this shit is true. But I could imagine myself as one of the artists here. It’s a fable, but it’s instructive for any of us trying to do something big, something that makes a change, something that brings light to darkness and joy in the suffering.

Many of our projects will end up being campaigns for George. If, instead of trying, we hold ourselves back, don’t contribute, we’ll save a little face. We won’t have put our necks out for a loser.

But I see another story in these photos. I don’t see anything about a president. I don’t see any real purpose.

I see an excuse for a bunch of weirdos and ragamuffins to get together and make something.

I don’t see art critics talking about “what this means.” I see a weird dude in a hat painting on his friend’s back.

I see cocktails on a massive canvas.

I see an old dude in a chair smiling lackadaisically and another old dude on his knees measuring meticulously.

In episode 47 of the podcast I intro us as the muppets. And at the end I mention this great quote about the moral of the muppet movie:

“The message of the movie is that a bunch of wonderfully eccentric, creative and outlandish individuals can somehow be brought together and stay together, because they take great joy in what they do.”

That’s what I see most in these pictures.

The guy they were rooting for didn’t win. George lost.

These folks painted anyways, almost as if they were dancing to their own music, following the joy and groove of the making, doing what they can with what they have focusing on what they can control (the making) disconnected from what results may come.

It’s just a fable in my head, but I want to get into that groove, the joy in the making, more… For a while at least.

When you work for yourself you need results too. I gotta make that coin. But I’m prone to an imbalance, and when I’m too results-focused I make worse stuff… Because I’m smiling less in the making.

Go get some friends together and help a George get elected.

That’s all you can ever do in life: do your best and enjoy yourself.”

Dr Steve Peters

Trail Therapy — a modern day rustic poet

“In 1999, lost his son to suicide. A few years later he lost his daughter to a drug overdose. At sixty-four years old, he has walked across the United States seven times to raise awareness for depression and suicide and to inspire people he meets to “love life.”

This was, just… when he cries… his language… i just… the juxtaposition of how he looks, the down to earth idioms, his story, the simple quest he’s on and the handful of moments of free-flow beatnik poetry… this is magic.

…so they can go through that situation of pain and convert that damn evil, negative self pity into self reliance and go help others with it through nothing more than telling their own story.”

Alan Watts on Why Man Suffers

Buddha’s doctrine: man suffers because of his craving to possess and keep forever things which are impermanent.”

Alan Watts

Quoting a tweet from a white, British eastern fiddler on ancient doctrines about life’s biggest questions… what a world.

I’m no Buddhist, but I’ll be damned if this sentiment right here doesn’t make some sense.

I Am For An Art That

I am for an art that is political-erotical-mystical, that does something other than sit on its ass in a museum.

I am for an art that grows up not knowing it is art at all, an art given the chance of having a starting point of zero.

I am for an art that embroils itself with the everyday crap and still comes out on top.

I am for an art that imitates the human, that is comic, if necessary, or violent, or whatever is necessary.

I am for art that is smoked like a cigarette, smells like a pair of shoes.

I am for art that flaps like a flag, or helps blow noses like a handkerchief.

I am for art that comes out of a chimney like black hair and scatters in the sky.

I am for the art that a kid licks, after peeling away the wrapper.

I am for art that is put on and taken off like pants, which develops holes like socks, which is eaten like a piece of pie, or abandoned with great contempt like a piece of shit.

I am for all art that takes its form from the lines of life itself, that twists and extends and accumulates and spits and drips, and is heavy and coarse and blunt and sweet and stupid as life itself.

Claes Oldenburg

These are just a few bits and bobs from a longer piece. Cool guy.

I’m gonna be myself and see who dances.”

Ron White

Edna on Death

I shall die, but that is all I shall do for death.”

Edna St. Vincent Millay

James Rhodes on Getting Good

What if, rather than paying £70 a month for a gym membership that delights in making you feel fat, guilty and a world away from the man your wife married you bought a few blank canvases and some paints and spent time each day painting your version of “I love you” until you realised that any woman worth keeping would jump you then and there just for that, despite your lack of a six-pack?”

James Rhodes

This was a very fk’n good article. Marked as editor’s pick so I come back to it again and again.

Charles Bukowski on Doing What You Love

“My dear, find what you love and let it kill you. Let it drain from you your all. Let it cling onto your back and weigh you down into eventual nothingness. Let it kill you, and let it devour your remains.

For all things will kill you, both slowly and fastly, but it’s much better to be killed by a lover.

Falsely yours,
Henry Charles Bukowski”

This being attributed to Bukowski is suspect. Whatever. Still great.