William (Bill) Bernbach

By: Victoria Yates

Bill Bernbach

Bill Bernbach was born on the 3rd of August 1911 to Rebecca and Jacob Bernbach in The Bronx, New York City. He attended public school in New York before earning his Bachelors degree in English from New York University in 1932. While there he also studied music, philosophy, and business administration.

The following year Bernbach started working in the Schenley Distillers mailroom. It was while working there that he wrote his first ad for the brand’s American Cream Whiskey, somehow managing to get it in front of the right people. The ad ran and Bernbach was promoted into the advertising department.  

In 1938, Bernbach married Evelyn Carbone, a receptionist whom he had met while he worked in the mailroom and she was attending Hunter College. Despite his family’s religious objections to the match, they remained together until his death, and together had two sons, John and Paul.

He left the Schenley corporation in 1939, instead spending some time ghostwriting for Grover Whalden then the head of the 1939 World’s Fair. But by the following year he had returned to advertising, this time at the William H. Weintraub agency.

Bernbach served in the US Army for a time during World War II. When he got back to the States he was hired by Coty Incorporated before finding his way to Grey Advertising where his flair quickly led him up the ranks to vice-president and creative director, a post he received in 1947.

He was, however, frustrated with the monotony of advertising, openly criticizing the industry’s stifled creativity. In a letter to the agency’s managing team, Bernbach bemoaned that whilst advertising was filled with great technicians “advertising is fundamentally a persuasion and persuasion happens to be not a science, but an art.”

On June 1st 1949, joined by Ned Doyle whom he had worked with at Grey and Maxwell Dane, already the manager of a small agency, Bernbach founded Doyle Dane Bernbach ad agency in Manhattan. Their goal was to show that good taste, good art, and good writing could also make for good selling.

Bernbach immediately took firm control over the writing side of their work, choosing to distance himself from the more administrative or promotional components to focus on the creative angle.

He was the mind behind iconic ad campaigns like those for Volkswagen including ‘Think Small’ and ‘Lemon.’ Bernbach combined imaginative, offbeat thinking with his hallmark simplicity and has been heralded as one of the driving forces behind the creative revolution of the 60s and 70s. Some also credit Bernbach with being the first to move copywriters and art directors out of separate departments and into collaborative teams – a commonplace model in modern advertising.

By the time he retired the agency had increased billings from roughly $1 million to over $40 million a year. When he stepped aside as CEO in 1976, DDB had grown to be the 11th largest advertising agency in America.

He won many awards during his career including being inducted into the Copywriters Hall of Fame in 1964, winning The Man of the Year Advertising Award in both ’64 and ’65, and gaining an American Academy of Achievement Award in 1976.

Recently, Bernbach has become a bit of a mainstream pop culture reference. He is widely mentioned in the popular television show Mad Men, where his unfettered thinking challenges the show’s more orthodox agency’s style.

On October 2nd 1982, Bernbach lost his battle with leukaemia at the age of 71.

He was and remains a leader for those within the advertising community and wider communications fields. Bernbach is famous for his wonderfully astute quotes and his strong sense of the communications industry as an influential force in society with an obligation to make things better through that platform.  Bernbach believed that, “all of us who professionally use the mass media are the shapers of society. We can vulgarize society. We can brutalize it. Or we can help lift it onto a higher level.”