The gifted creative, gifted mom and gifted friend Jenny Nicholson gifted me yesterday with a memo from Bill Bernbach.
Bernbach wrote the memo 72 years ago when he was just 36. Outside of one instance of Bernbach bowing to the “patriarchy,” there’s not a single word in the memo that I would change. There’s not a single false-note. Not a single observation that isn’t more relevant today than it was when Harry S Truman was President.
Jenny had sent me a jpeg of the memo, but because I wanted to ‘get it into my head,’ I took the time to type a replica of it on my own computer. I resisted my usual tendency to re-write. In fact, I even kept the typeface and the line-breaks exactly the same. Not to lay it on too thick, but I somehow managed to show restraint that’s rare today. I didn’t change a word or two so I could make this mine. Bernbach’s memo is very-nearly perfect. It’s not to be sullied by the likes of me.
Maybe because I am a genetic Hebrew, I’m going to start very near the bottom of the note. Just before Bernbach’s signature is a simple closing. Bernbach signs off “Respectfully.” Not cheers. Not a smiley face. Nothing glib or superficial. Instead with that treatment we all get too little of: respect. It’s hard to feel respected when very nearly the only communication you get from management is a shrill, all-caps admonition to do your time-sheets. It’s hard to feel respected when raises have vanished. And bonuses. And spot bonuses. And for the most part, even simple ‘thank you-s” and hand-shakes.
Moving up the page from the bottom, you’ll come to this sentence. “Let us prove to the world that good taste, good art and good writing can be good selling.”
First, it’s clear from this small assemblage of phrases what our business’ goal is: good selling. And it’s just as clear how we can achieve our goal: Good taste. Good art. Good writing.
David Ogilvy might have said the same thing a little differently when he said, “The consumer isn’t a moron. She is your wife.” In other words, treat the people who look at your ads well. Respect their discernment, intelligence and desire for things of quality—not things that pander.
Strolling still further up the page, I come upon these words: “If we are to advance we must emerge as a distinctive personality.” Today, despite all the corporate bushwa we’re fed about diversity and inclusion, a prevailing conformity affects and infects our business. We greatly admire people who think like us. We stuff people into tight-fitting boxes and “this is the way we’ve always done-it-ism,” and then we say, “go wild.”
Whole generations of creative people go to school—not to learn about the world, but to learn to make ads. We unabashedly say, “this commercial will be like the one _______ shot for ________.” Don’t ask if they’ve ever seen “Citizen Kane” or read “Moby Dick” or ever done anything other than intern at an ad agency. They haven’t.
You won’t find anyone who fits this description from Raymond Chandler. [He’s] “an occasional drinker, the kind of guy who goes out for a beer and wakes up in Singapore with a full beard.”
This man-in-the-gray-flannel-suit conformity is the point of Bernbach’s preceeding four paragraphs. Some choice sentences here.
“The danger lies in the temptation to buy routinised 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 makes us look like all the others.”
“the danger is a preoccupation with technical skill or the mistaking of technical skill for creative ability.”
“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.”
“In the past year I must have interviewed about 80 people…It was appalling to see how few of these people were genuinely creative.”
Now, the first three paragraphs, starting with the third and ending with the opening. To my mind these words describe our current “professionalization” of our industry and our work. We rely on what’s been done before. We rely on the pseudo-science of pseudo-data. We drink some noxious alchemy of Kool-Aid, Hemlock and with a strong dose of MBA and we reach our conclusions.
As if anticipating the powerpointization of instinct, humor, surprise and imagination, Bernbach writes: “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.”
“There are a lot of great technicians in advertising. And unfortunately they talk the best game. They know all the rules. 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.”
Finally, Bernbach’s opening.
“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.”
Maybe I should write it a bit more like e.e. cummings, so it sits better on a page and in your memory.
that we’re going to f
into the trap of BIGNESS.
That we’re going to worship techniques.
Instead of substance.
instead of making it.
I’m worried lest hardening of the creative arteries
But enough of me.