Let’s see how big we can get before we get bad

June 22 - campaign_vw 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:

- Be routinely covered by a Time or Newsweek
- Be envied by Manhattan's top art directors who would pin it on their own agency's bulletin board, and
- Attract new clients like bees to honey.

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.

4 thoughts on “Let’s see how big we can get before we get bad

  1. How much would you like to wager that this is how Mad Men will evolve over the 3rd and subsequent seasons? The drama of DDB’s history is too fascinating not to document in a fictionalized context – and there is no other show that can do it as well (apologies to Trust Me – not in the same league).

  2. Totally agree, Michael. As for ‘Trust me,’ it’s academic. The show wasn’t renewed for a second season.

  3. When introduced to Bernbach’s work (and that of his team), my advertising students immediately recognize, decades later, the incredible quality of his campaigns.

  4. That’s really interesting to hear, Brian. I don’t think we appreciate how radically different DDB advertising was at the time. According to the book, Bernbach himself loved creating the big idea and developing the headline, but found copy writing boring.