April 13, 2010
 

MAD DAD: Bernbach's Sucker Punch

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By Wendy McHale, Publisher

"I hope it doesn't completely obliterate his importance as the inspiration for creative people ... though it might."

The above quote is not mine. It's from Ms. Doris Willens as told to Advertising Age this week in an interview for the book she wrote about Bill Bernbach; the Madison Avenue legend universally known as, "The Father of the Creative Revolution!"

Inspired to write it based on the hit program MAD MEN it is titled, "Nobody's Perfect: Bill Bernbach and the Golden Age of Advertising." It's on Amazon for $14.99

The purpose of her book is to act as a hatchet on the advertising legend's reputation, though it has more of a butter knife effect. It's a sucker punch swung at Bill that completely misses. According to Willens, Bernbach is "an insecure individual with no interest in the drudgery that was writing "all the little words" for ads, rising to fame largely on the backs of the talented creatives under him. He was comfortable only with the familiar. He ate at the same restaurants. He wore grey suits and dotted ties. He was generally rather dull in the opinion of colleagues. He jealously he guarded his image. He was also a devoted family man."

In light of how fond publishers are today of feeding the frenzy of gossip on Madison Avenue, if the details of working with Bill were so scandalous, why did she "self-publish" it?

We have to chuckle at how Ms. Willens believes her book will degrade the perception of Bill Bernbach in the eyes of future creative directors on Madison Avenue. It's easy to take pot shots and spin the character flaws in anyone, particularly legend-level leaders. When you're a leader, you're a target. Willens wasn't around when Bill opened Doyle Dane Bernbach in June 1949. She came aboard much later when most of the heavy-lifting was already accomplished.

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Pictures are of January Jones on the set of MAD MEN. Ms. Jones plays Betty Draper, the wife of MAD MEN's main character.

Her book ignores the audacity of hope that Mr. Bernbach and his two partners had 60 years ago this month when they opened the first Jewish-owned ad agency. At that time, Harry Truman was still president, two years before the Eisenhower era, and/or essentially 15 years before the creative revolution.

Bernbach was the ancient equivalent of Steve Jobs. Today Apple is the Fort Knox of Marketing. However, for example, back in 1984 Apple was still in its piggy-bank years. According to Jay Chiat, when Steve Jobs screened the now "Lincoln Memorial-like" 1984 TV commercial for Apple's board, to his surprise, they despised it. They even hinted that Apple should begin to hunt for a new ad agency instead. Leading up to the Super Bowl, Apple considered running a far more conventional commercial, but only 15 minutes before the spot was to air, they decided to take a chance and ran it.

On Madison Avenue, the job of the Corporate Communications Director, PR Director, Handler, and "Shoulder to Cry On" is in many respects as much a corporate psychiatrist as they are spinmaster. We know some of the most talented Corporate Communications Directors in the business. Their job is to maximize the good news and minimize the bad. Working with senior execs at the firm in PR is one of the most challenging jobs in the business.

There's nothing more tied into the pride and ego of an agency CEO than the PR her/his shop receives in the trade press. The PR Director gets no credit when the good news runs and all the heat when reporters publish something less than flattering. The PR director has a view of the agency and its leaders far closer than any senior agency exec. Given the subject and the era with which is covered, to us it feels like a low blow. Plus, based on the feedback here, she apparently got it all wrong.

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One person who really likes the book is Mr. Fred Danzig, esteemed Former Editor in Chief of Ad Age. Mr. Danzig's review of it was published recently on Amazon: "What we really have the pleasure of discovering in "Nobody's Perfect" is (a) a rich, detailed insider's history of Madison Avenue's most influential advertising agency; (b) the ways in which Bill Bernbach and his accidental partners, Ned Doyle and Mac Dane, managed, and at times mismanaged, their agency's explosive --and fabled --years of growth, (c) the strengths and, yes, the limitations of Bill Bernbach's creative DNA, and (d) the boardroom --and bar-room -- decisions -- good, bad, and jaw-droppingly disastrous." Danzig says that Ms. Willens directed DDB's public and corporate public relations during its "golden age."

However, by the time the creative revolution was upon us, DDB was already into its 2nd generation. It's a measure of Bernbach's character of how he faced the challenges in those early years versus 15+ years later after it was already a powerhouse on MadAve.

As Rupal Parekh reports this week, Doris Willens began writing the manuscript many years ago. Years passed and the manuscript collected dust, with Ms. Willens figuring the contents were no longer interesting. But then something happened: "Mad Men."

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Here are several posts from AdAge readers who commented on Doris Willens story. They are, needless to say, pithy:

1. Walt Disney wasn't much of an animator, either.

2. Who cares if Bill never wrote a great ad? It was his vision, his passion, his leadership and eternal guidance that built a great agency and fueled the creative revolution.

3. He also managed to get clients to trust creative. For that, he made his mark.

4. So...a former PR person from Doyle Dane Bernbach dares to self publish (that tells you all you need to know right there) a book critical of Bill Bernbach after many of his most legendary creatives are no longer alive to defend him.

5. When I worked with Roy Grace and Diane Rothschild I never heard anything other than remarkable enthusiasm for the agency Bernbach built.

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6. Show me a confident creative, and I'll show you a hack.

7. Architects don't physically "build" the buildings either.

8. Well, citing her "inspiration", Ms. Willens may one day write a book about how Bert Cooper or Roger Sterling never wrote an ad, and all Don Draper did was lay in his office nursing a hang over and then coming up with something in a last minute act of creative desperation. Perhaps with a forward by Pete Campbell?

9. Nobody had a greater influence on our industry than Bill Bernbach. Was he perfect? No. Did he change the way agencies worked? Yes. Did he make mistakes? Without a doubt. Did he inspire several generations of advertising people? For sure. Was he the world's greatest copywriter? Probably not. Was he insecure? Yes but in my experience all the real great people in our business insecure. Was some of the best copy ever written done under his direction? For sure. Was he the best business man in the business? No. Did he recognize that the agency business was a combination of business and art and did he help find the right balance between the two? Absolutely. Is our industry better because he spent his life raising our standards and challenging us all to do better. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Thank God we have a Bill Bernbach to look at, to set a standard, to inspire and Ms. Willens should be thankful she had the chance to work with him and, I hope, write about him in a truthful and respectful way.

10. It's always a little ugly to learn one's idol is human since we're naturally focused only on all the "great" stuff he's done. Well, he's still a hero to me -- the consummate ad guy who inspired a generation of men & women wanting to make their mark in our industry. I choose to concentrate on Bernbach's many contributions, not the peripheral and inconsequential minutiae.

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The MadAve Journal began our 2009 editorial schedule with a 5-day series on "The Last Mad Man," Chairman Emeritus of DDB and Co-Founder of Omnicom, Keith Reinhard. Here is Keith's take on the book.

"I did not work personally with Bill, but my dream was to build a worldwide network based on the principles that he espoused and articulated that inspired so many people in addition to myself," said Keith Reinhard, chairman emeritus for DDB Worldwide. "I don't think Bill ever claimed to be a copywriter, and to my knowledge, his great gift is inspiration," said Mr. Reinhard, who questioned "what constructive purpose the book is serving."

For your convenience, here is the link to the "The Last Mad Man" series. Incidentally, Mr. Reinhard gave Matthew Weiner, a Lifetime Achievement Award at this past years 2009 Clios.

As judged by the color of its front cover, it makes great sense to summarize Ms. Willens book in one word, Lemon!

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