Thursday, August 25, 2011

A century with a difference

Bill Bernbach, who, in a land of supersized products, urged people to ‘think small’ when it came to the “ugly German car that made waves in post-War America”. _ V. SREENIVASA MURTHY

Remembering ad man Bill Bernbach, whose 100th birthday it was earlier this month

For some time now, a billion-plus Indians have been waiting for a century, actually a century of centuries from the little master Sachin Tendulkar, with bated breath initially and later with increasing restlessness, that now lies frustrated.

Around the same time, on August 13, to be precise, another century happened which was celebrated a lot more quietly by fewer people — it was the 100th birthday of Bill Bernbach who is arguably advertising's greatest legend. While any time is a good time to recall the legend and his contribution to advertising thinking and practice, now is perhaps the most appropriate time as any as advertising today teeters from a recklessness that would put Sehwag to shame and boredom that would easily put Boycott to sleep. What made Bill Bernbach a legend in his own lifetime, given that the advertising industry has been full of people who have a tremendous capability to be legends in their own lunchtime? (It is the worst-kept secret that advertising people specialise in three martini lunches!) And yet, I must bear in mind too what Bill (as I am going to call him for the rest of the piece) had to say about the risk of too much analysis — even love would not be able to survive such scrutiny, as he was fond of saying. So it is more the unabashed admiration of someone who has had the privilege of seeing some of the greatest work that Madison Avenue ever produced rather than some pointless analysis.

Confessions of the advertising kind

Like most young Indians of that time, the only exposure we had to advertising writing was through David Ogilvy and his ‘confessions'. To us David Ogilvy was the be all and end all of advertising. While there is no denying the impact the Scotsman made on an entire generation of budding advertising professionals, we now know the value of the revolutionary nature of work that Bill and his agency were doing, even if he has not left the legacy of his agency in a book form unlike some of his contemporaries and predecessors.

“The real giants have always been poets, men who jumped from facts into the realm of imagination and ideas,” said Bill, probably describing himself. Maybe one of my most nostalgic moments was to visit the room that Bill Bernbach worked from and even if it did not make the slightest difference to my creativity (or lack of it), it certainly was one more sneak peek at the greatness of a true giant.

Thinking big with a small car

Who could be in advertising and not yearn for a Beetle after seeing the Volkswagen ads? Not for nothing had the Advertising Age called the Volkswagen ad the greatest ad of the last century. Imagine the temerity of the man who came up with a ‘think small' campaign in a country of big cars, big burgers and big milk shakes! A car which would never win a second glance and which Hitler called the “people's car”, being a best-seller in post-war America! A tribute to revolutionary strategic thinking coupled with execution that demonstrated the truth of what Bill firmly believed in: “You've got to live with your product. You've got to get steeped in it. You've got to get saturated with it. You must get to the heart of it. Indeed, if you have not crystallised into a single purpose, a single theme, what you want to tell the reader, you CANNOT be creative.” Clearly he followed his own advice and discovered the real drama that was in the product and conveyed it through sensational advertising.


Mama Mia

Alka Seltzer was another brand that had the benefit of immortal advertising from the Bernbach school and that demonstrated, like other work of that period from the agency, the Bernbach principle of “Simple. Surprise. Smile''. Let me explain that principle as demonstrated by the Alka Seltzer commercial that I must have shown hundreds of times in my classes and training sessions. It features an Italian model and his beaming wife proudly watching her husband eating a ‘spicy meatball'. As luck would have it everything that can go wrong does so in the shoot, from the accent to the prop crashing, to the model messing up the lines leading to 57 takes and when you eat more than you should, there is always Alka Seltzer, and the surprise? Even as the shoot extends interminably and the model is on the verge of throwing up, the voice-over of the bored director says ‘Let's break for lunch'. This strategy of a commercial ending in the viewer's mind, only to see another twist to the tale has been standard operating procedure with DDB Needham and a whole host of other agencies who have been influenced by the Bernbach way. And yet it is perhaps as good a time as any to step back and think. How many of today's commercials are simple? Do they surprise? And do they make the consumer smile?

Stop smiling, start trying

Any tribute to Bill would be incomplete without a mention of the Avis “We try harder, because we are no.2''. Avis might find pride of place in several marketing discussions and case studies in business schools across the world about the philosophy of a challenger and how an entire company and its host of employees can improve their service delivery and stand up and compete with the leader who was twice their size and had more cars and more people and just about everything that the challenger lacked. But advertising can and will make a difference, especially when it is anchored on facts. “Avis can't afford dirty ash trays”, said the Bernbach ad that was based on research that Hertz did not have time to even clean the ash trays before the customer took the car that he had been waiting for. As Bill said, the real drama was in the product, it only needed a genius to discover it and better still, communicate it in a manner that you and I could relate to and act upon.


Here is Hertz Ad in response to Avis as to why they are No.1


A century of leadership

Today Bill may not be with us, but his philosophy sustains the creative minds of the industry that for long periods in time has been rudderl
ess. Properly practised creative, as the master said, would make one ad do the work of ten. He felt that often enough we forget that we can create a trend instead of merely follow it. Yes, Bill realised that the advertising industry often enough does not understand or appreciate its own strength and is often satisfied being a mere follower when it can actually create trends, preferences and dictate the way the world thinks, feels and more importantly, actually, buys. Because Bill was clear that the purpose of advertising is to sell and he knew too that the best advertising does not draw attention to itself but to the product.

A time to remember

Now as the world goes into turbulence and the markets into a tizzy, it is perhaps time to remember that the more things change, the more they are the same. Human emotions remain the same and the basic needs of the human race have not changed dramatically. People may not want to be sold to, but would still like to be wooed. Does your advertising work? Or is it too clever by half? Is it predictable, anchored both in research and in the past or does it come like a breath of fresh air, like the ugly German car that made waves in post-war America?

And for someone like me with two real loves in life, cri
cket and advertising, at least the advertising has delivered me phenomenal joy. The cricket, currently at least, does not provide me with the same joy. But then you can't have everything in life, can you?

Here is hoping that the century of centuries happens in Australia, where it can make a difference to the outcome. And here is wishing that the principles that Bill was passionate about sustain another century of advertising and, more critically, inspire a generation of young creative people to carry the baton of creativity in a world that so desperately needs it.

Ramanujam Sridhar CEO of brand-comm. and a Director of Custommerce.
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