I'm in the midst of a real page-turner of a business book entitled, 'Nobody's Perfect: Bill Bernbach and the Golden Age of Advertising.' I highly recommend it for anyone in the midst of, or considering, a career in marketing communications.
Written by Doris Willen, who served as Doyle Dane Bernbach's internal public relations director, the tome is a behind-the-scenes, kiss-and-tell all about the rise and fall of, arguably, advertising's greatest agency ever.
Bill Bernbach was the creative genius behind the DDB's rise. But, as the firm grew in prominence, some strange things started to happen. First, although others in the firm were creating the award-winning campaigns, Bernbach was claiming sole, public credit for them (and, considering the oversized egos one finds at any ad agency, that did not sit well). Second, once Bernbach, Dane and Doyle decided to take the firm public, and pocketed almost all of the proceeds for themselves, next generation talent began to grab the best accounts and head elsewhere.
That said, in their day, there was nothing quite like DDB or Bill Bernbach. They competed with one another to create the next, great ad that would:
Bernbach was fearless with clients too. He'd walk away from any account that tried to meddle with his 'big idea.'
In the end, size killed DDB. They simply stopped working as hard to create truly 'great' advertising. And Bernbach's progeny, people such as Mary Wells, left to start their own hot shops. In the end, Bernbach fell victim to a flawed strategy that laid waste to another legendary adman, Jay Chiat, who once said, 'Let's see how big we get before we get bad.'
Doris Willens book is a cautionary tale that reinforces the slippery slope of success. When I look at public relations, I think of some of the once great brands that suffered fates similar to DDB's: Hill & Knowlton is a shell of the firm I joined in 1978. Global heavyweight Carl Byoir is gone completely. As is Rowland & Company. So, too, are the victims of the dotcom bust or the more recent 'great recession.’
While it's brutally tough to become a great agency, Bill Bernbach's fate is a great reminder that once they reach the top of the mountain, too many people and too many firms stop doing all the little things that got them there in the first place.