Advertising Industry Profile: Legendary Bill Bernbach

Learn more about advertising's greatest influencer

Bill Bernbach
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Born in the Bronx in New York City on August 13, 1911, William (Bill) Bernbach is the most important and influential figure in the history of modern advertising. A founding partner of Doyle Dane Bernbach (DDB), he was a copywriter and creative director who changed the face of advertising, and almost every advertising agency today relies on the ideas and structure that Bernbach provided.

Bill Bernbach's Education and Early Career

In 1932, at age 21, Bernbach earned a B.A. from New York University. He majored in English, but his education was well-rounded and this provided invaluable preparation for his advertising career. His studies included philosophy, business administration, and music. Bernbach also played the piano.

The year 1932 was hardly the best time to graduate from any kind of university as this was during the meteoric rise of the Great Depression—with unemployment at record highs and national morale at rock bottom. Fortunately for Bernbach, his family had connections with Schenley Distillers, headquartered in New York's Empire State Building, and in 1933 he was given a job in the mailroom. It was not a position he held for a long time. His skill with words and his natural ambition shone through, and he wrote an ad for Schenley's American Cream Whiskey.

The ad ran, and Bernbach was promoted to the in-house advertising department. After six successful years at Schenley, Bernbach left to pursue loftier ambitions. He became a ghostwriter for Grover Whalen, who was head of the 1939 World's Fair. From there, he entered what was called "above-the-line" advertising, also known as display advertising, at the William H. Weintraub Advertising Agency. He partnered there with the talented art director Paul Rand.

Following a two-year tour in World War II, Bernbach briefly worked for Coty, the cosmetics company, then moved on to the large New York City agency Grey Advertising. At this agency, Bernbach developed his skills even further, and by 1947 at age 36, he became the creative director at Grey.

Founds DDB With Ned Doyle and Mac Dane

During his years at Grey, Bernbach became good friends with James Edwin "Ned" Doyle and Maxwell "Mac" Dane. Doyle was an executive at Grey, and Dane was running a small advertising agency called Maxwell Dane, Inc. The agency lasted just five years, as Dane closed it to start Doyle Dane Bernbach (DDB) with Bill and Ned.

The early days at DDB were typical for any startup agency. Work was slim to begin with, and the three founders played a very hands-on role. Bernbach was the creative powerhouse at the agency, creating ads that redefined the way in which advertising is perceived, viewed, created, sold, and remembered.

Two of the most notable DDB ads Bernbach oversaw were "Think Small" and "Lemon" for the Volkswagen Beetle. The 1959 VW campaign turned advertising on its head in part because of its spare design and use of black-and-white images. It was ranked as best advertising campaign of the 20th Century in a survey of agencies conducted by AdvertisingAge, the trade publication.

Other notable campaigns from DDB under Bernbach's watch included:

  • "We Try Harder" for Avis
  • "You Don't Have to Be Jewish to Love Levy's" for Levy's Rye Bread
  • "Mikey" for Life Cereal
  • "It's So Simple" for Polaroid

Doyle Dane Bernbach Sets the Standard

Before DDB, art directors and copywriters worked separately. That doesn't mean they worked at different desks; they were often in different departments, on different floors, or even in different buildings. A copywriter would write the copy for an ad, including the headline, and that copy would be passed to an art director who would apply visuals and a graphic treatment.

Bernbach saw the huge flaw in that model and changed it. Considering two heads to be better than one, he placed art directors and copywriters in teams and asked them to figure the ad out as a team. This collaboration, which is responsible for the incredible work that came out of the agency, is still the model used by advertising agency creative departments.

Under Bernbach's creative leadership and high standards, DDB grew into a giant of the advertising industry. It was the place to work, and the advertising produced there was consistently excellent—amazing both clients and other agencies.

Bill Bernbach won many awards during his time at DDB and was inducted into the Copywriters Hall of Fame in 1964. He died on October 2, 1982, in New York City, at age 71.

Bernbach's legacy lives on, and today, DDB Worldwide is part of the Omnicom network. For its 70th anniversary in 2019, the agency unveiled a logo that hearkens back to its origins. Two Ds—one yellow and one black—are stacked atop each other, making what looks like a B. The words Doyle Dane Bernbach are etched into the lower D.

A Selection of Best Quotes

Bill Bernbach is one of the most quoted, and quotable, people from the history of advertising. Here are just a few inspirational Bernbach quotes:

  • The most powerful element in advertising is the truth.
  • A great ad campaign will make a bad product fail faster. It will get more people to know it's bad.
  • Advertising is fundamentally persuasion and persuasion happens to be not a science, but an art.
  • Nobody counts the number of ads you run; they just remember the impression you make.
  • Word of mouth is the best medium of all.
  • You can say the right thing about a product, and nobody will listen. You've got to say it in such a way that people will feel it in their gut. Because if they don't feel it, nothing will happen.
  • Just because your ad looks good is no insurance that it will get looked at. How many people do you know who are impeccably groomed…but dull?