The Letter That Changed The History of Advertising!

by buildingpharmabrands

William Bernbach (August 3, 1911 - October 2, 1982)

William Bernbach (August 3, 1911 – October 2, 1982)

Bill Bernbach the legendary advertising man was a visionary with a visionary zeal and he was a worrier. And that’s a killer combination, wrote Bob Levenson, former worldwide creative director and chairman of Doyle Dane Bernbach International in his 1987 book, Bill Bernbach’s Book: A History of Advertising That Changed The History of Advertising.


Bob Levenson further wrote that Bill Bernbach, most of all worried about our doing nothing less than a brilliant job for clients. He believed the best way of winning new business was doing excellent work for the clients already on hand.

Bill’s advertising philosophy, principles, beliefs, values and convictions about good advertising are evident in the letter he wrote on May 15, 1947, to Gray Advertising, his employers at the time. It dealt with issues that were central to him throughout his life and the principles he lived by. These are the issues that majority of the world’s agencies have either barely begun realize or simply pay lip service even today.

Here is the letter that changed the history of advertising:

“May 15, 1947


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 are 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 creative arteries begin to set in.

There are a lot of 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 his 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 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 worshipping a ritual instead of 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 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”

The management of Gray Advertising didn’t respond quickly enough for Bill Bernbach. Two years later, on June1, 1949 he cofounded an advertising agency, Doyle Dane Bernbach, with his colleague Ned Doyle, a vice-president and account executive and Maxwell Dane, who was running a small advertising agency at the time. The rest became the advertising history that changed the history of advertising. Forever.