Legends in Advertising: Bill Bernbach, the Original Don Draper

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All images and ads on this page courtesy of DDB.

Lately we’ve been taking a look back at the greats in the business.

If you’ve ever poked around in such things, you know that you’ll keep finding one name, over and over: Bill Bernbach.

Bernbach, along with Ned Doyle and Maxwell Dane, founded DDB on June 1, 1949. Often cited as one of the most important names in modern advertising (and even often mentioned in such pop culture outlets as “Mad Men”), Bernbach paired up art directors and copywriters and largely founded the creative department model that’s standard today. (For the record, he also worked with Paul Rand at the William H. Weintraub agency; DDB notes how Rand’s “bold simplicity” had a great influence on Bernbach.)

While Bernbach died in 1982, it’s far more than cliché and sentimental wording to say that his influence undoubtedly resonates to this day.

Here’s a selection of his top works, with explanations and insight from DDB—along with some of Bernbach’s quotes.

Ohrbach's - Joan- 8.5 X 13

From DDB: This ad for Ohrbach’s, a retail outlet, first appeared in 1958 and may just be the single most important ad of all time. Why? Not just because it was the first time a retailer branded its customers instead of itself—it was suddenly chic to be cheap. Not just because of the irresistible juxtaposition of arresting visual and catty headline, not even because it was one of the first and best examples of Bernbach’s idea that every ad, like every person or product, should have a distinct personality, but because it was Bernbach’s work for Ohrbach’s that several years later attracted the U.S. importers of an ugly little car from Germany—Volkswagen. N.M. Ohrbach knew Bill Bernbach when Ohrbach’s was a client at Grey Advertising. Mr. Ohrbach, who was not happy with Grey, suggested that Bernbach launch his own agency with Ohrbach’s as its first client. Ohrbach even agreed to pay for the work in advance, enabling Doyle, Dane and Bernbach to pay their initial bills. The campaign transformed Ohrbach’s from an unfashionable store in an unfashionable part of town to a “high fashion at low prices” boutique that attracted the attention of such people as the Rockefellers and drew “high fashion” coverage from Life magazine.

Ohrbach's - School - 8.5 X 13
VW - Lemon - 9 X 12

In 1960, giving a German car a lovable personality meant breaking all the rules—not just for car advertising, but for advertising in general. That task fell to the art director, Helmut Krone, and to Julian Koenig, his copywriter partner. Playing to the simplicity of the product was a practice unfamiliar to DDB’s contemporaries. But DDB’s VW ads introduced us to a car that would come to symbolize anti-establishment and common sense.

Showing a car on a plain background was unheard of. But to refer to your new car as a “lemon” was an in-your-face act of daring on the part of the agency, and an act of courage on the part of the client. As closer inspection of the ad’s copy revealed, a scratched chrome plate on the glove compartment made an entire car unfit for shipping. The stunning visual and self-deprecating copy had an appeal absent from other ads. They were disarmingly simple. And effective.

Avis - So why 10 X 13

Avis had been stuck in second place in its category and had been losing money for 15 years when Avis President Bob Townsend asked Bill Bernbach to give the company’s image a boost. What resulted was an unlikely campaign success story as DDB embraced Avis’ second-place status.

“All of our research and theirs showed that the one thing really unique about Avis was that it was No. 2 in its field,” DDB account exec Lester Blumenthal said in 1962. The “We Try Harder” campaign, a trailblazer in comparative advertising, scored miserably in testing. Half the people didn’t like it. “But half the people did,” Bernbach said, “and that’s the half we want. Let’s go with it.”

Almost overnight, Avis raced into the black. The ads transformed Avis into a popular underdog, with everyone rooting for them to succeed.

“We try harder” entered the vernacular and even turned up on lapel buttons. Forty years later, iterations and echoes of this campaign can still be found all over the world.

* * *

Finally, here’s a selection of Bernbach’s quotes. (For many, many more, check out DDB’s collection here.)

“Rules are what the artist breaks; the memorable never emerged from a formula.”

“Is creativity some obscure, esoteric art form? Not on your life. It’s the most practical thing a businessman can employ.”

“There is no such thing as a good or bad ad in isolation. What is good at one moment is bad at another. Research can trap you into the past.”


“Properly practiced creativity can make one ad do the work of ten.”

“Imitation can be commercial suicide.”

“We are so busy measuring public opinion that we forget we can mold it. We are so busy listening to statistics we forget we can create them.”

“Our job is to bring the dead facts to life.”

“A great ad campaign will make a bad product fail faster. It will get more people to know it’s bad.”

“Adapt your techniques to an idea, not an idea to your techniques.”

“The difference between the forgettable and the enduring is artistry.”

“Don’t confuse good taste with the absence of taste.”

“In communications, familiarity breeds apathy.”

“An idea can turn to dust or magic depending on the talent that rubs against it.”

“The real giants have always been poets, men who jumped from facts into the realm of imagination and ideas.”

“If you stand for something, you will always find some people for you and some against you. If you stand for nothing, you will find nobody against you, and nobody for you.”

The deadline for Print’s Regional Design Annual competition is almost here! The RDA is the only comprehensive survey of outstanding design throughout the United States. It’s seen by tens of thousands of creative professionals, and is an essential resource for art directors and studios looking for designers.


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About Zachary Petit

Zachary Petit (@zacharypetit on Twitter) is a freelance journalist, the editor-in-chief of Design Matters Media, and the former editor-in-chief of PRINT.

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