I was working at McCann Erickson for the money, for little black dance dresses that showed off my Norwegian legs, for my baby daughters' smocked dresses from Saks and for an apartment larger than I could afford - but then I met Bill Bernbach and he made a serious woman out of me. In the fifties in New York if you talked about "Bill" you meant Bill Bernbach. He was the talk of the town because he was creating a revolution in the advertising business, which was a glamorous business at the time. He challenged all the big advertising agencies that had become important since World War II, saying they had killed advertising, ads had become dishonest, boring, insulting, even insane. Worse, they didn't sell anything to anybody. The big agencies defended themselves; they said they made advertising scientifically, with sophisticated research. But Bill said either they were liars or they were stupid; their pitiful research reduced advertising to, basically, one poor tired ad that was repeated over and over again. When he really got going he would say things like, "The big agencies are turning their creative people into mimeograph machines!" and all the frustrated creative people in town would stamp their feet and cheer, "Yea, Bill!"
The advertising business, like America itself after the war, had built up the fiction of safety with its hierarchies and armylike respect for the boss. In the big agencies the boss was a group of executives called the Creative Review Board. Their research told them that America hungered for happiness and peace, so they produced advertising that was happy and peaceful. Children were always clean and smiling. Dogs were clean and smiling. Firemen, police, farmers and coal miners were clean and smiling. Everybody waved to each other in the ads. Beautiful women stretched out on the roofs of cars in their gowns and jewels and furs to make the cars look prettier. Bottles of whiskey wore crowns and stood proudly on red velvet columns pretending they were the Duke of Windsor. Bill was right; advertising was the land of the insane. There was never any direct personal communication, never any tension or drama or interesting information in them, but those ads, based on spurious research, had been touted so long as scientific that Bill was seditious criticizing them.
He had galloped out of the Grey agency to set advertising free with a little gold mine of people: Ned Doyle, Mac Dane, Bob Gage and Phyllis Robinson. They opened an agency, Doyle Dane Bernbach, and set about changing the way advertising looked, what it said, how it sounded; they even felt free to change the product or the company that made the product if that was what it took to have a success. Bill gave lectures to the press. Radiating moral gravity, he would tell them that the big agencies had it all wrong: "Advertising is not a science, it is persuasion, and persuasion is an art, it is intuition that leads to discovery, to inspiration, it is the artist who is capable of making the consumer feel desire."
He utterly bewildered the big agencies. They asked each other, "Why is this guy making a ruckus and disturbing the peace? Who is this Bill Bernbach?" Pretty soon everybody knew who Bill was. It was as if he had cordoned off Madison Avenue and set up a stage where he called for advertising to be honest and candid, smarter and more interesting. He demanded bolder language, humor, wit and stylish design. He said, "All of us who professionally use the mass media are the shapers of society. We can vulgarize society or we can help lift it to a higher level." When Doyle Dane Bernbach's first ads began to appear, they were as effective as Bill promised they would be, and after that, in the advertising business, there was no turning back and Bill was the star.
Phyllis Robinson was his copy chief and when I went to my interview for a job with her I was not optimistic. I knew how the work I had done at the large, traditional McCann Erickson agency would look to Doyle Dane Bernbach. I was dying to work there, partly because everybody was dying to work there, it was the hot spot, the place to be, but also, although my mind was still a young and silly place, because I thought Bill's revolution was the most important event of my life. If he had been John the Baptist I could not have been more enraptured. I spent days creating pretend ads to suggest that I was more talented than what my portfolio of real samples had to show. I arrived much too early. When Phyllis finally came out to the waiting room to collect me I had become frail, I could have fallen to my knees. She, on the other hand, was like the lead angel in an opera, tall, handsome, strong, brimming with energy and humor and purpose, an honest-to-goodness adult, she swept me into her office and turned her intelligence on me like a beam from outer space. Seeing how overimpressed I was, she eased down into the role of a friend and did all she could to help me with the interview. "Oh, this is interesting," she said, "yes, mmmm, good, tell me all about this," and I melted into adoration.
Copyright © 2002 by Mary L. Book Corp.