Here is Advertising: The Timeless Relevance of the Agency Greats

Steve Diamond, Chief Creative Officer |
Published at April 28, 2015

On a hot summer night in 1948, E.B White wrote an essay called Here is New York. It’s a perfect portrait of a place. I almost wrote “time and place,” but that would be incorrect. Sure, there are details of that time that are described vividly and indelibly. Yet the thing that I love every time I read it is how much of it is still true. The river of people flowing through the city has refreshed the population a thousand times over since 1948, but in all those years the essence of New York has not shifted more than an iota or two. The skyline is vastly different, technologies have been introduced and withered, the new has relentlessly replaced the old. But what drives the men and women who populate the island has not changed.

While White was scribbling away in that sweltering hotel room, not far away were the new offices of Ogilvy, Benson, & Mather.  It was their first year of operation—just a three man shop—and D.O. was most likely burning the midnight oil too. At that point, he was new to advertising. He did not yet know all the peculiarities of the business. But he did know people. And he knew how to sell.

One of his early masterpieces was a sales guide for Aga Cookers that he wrote at age 24 while working as a door-to-door salesman for the Scottish stove company. Later he wrote an equally brilliant self-promotion piece for Ogilvy & Mather called How to Create Advertising That Sells. Both of these works demonstrated two things that were highly developed in Ogilvy: A keen understanding of how to sell and a talent for expressing that knowledge with style and wit. “If it doesn’t sell, it isn’t creative,” was his motto.

In the selling and the writing, David Ogilvy celebrated “craft.” But he also came to champion what some considered craft’s complete opposite—“math.” “Advertising people who ignore research are as dangerous as generals who ignore decodes of enemy signals.” He knew that the key to persuasion would be found in insights and analytics (even before the word “analytics” was invented).

Here is New York was published in 1949. In that same year, Doyle Dane Bernbach was formed. Its leader, Bill Bernbach, is credited with starting advertising’s creative revolution. He was a prolific writer and, like Ogilvy, had the ability to capture in words the truths that others saw but couldn’t articulate. Where he got all of his wisdom, I don’t know. I suspect that much of what he professed, like the great themes of drama and comedy, has been known for centuries. His ideas are all based in how people think and behave. That is what makes them timeless. For instance, though he passed away long before the first web banner was ever written, he wrote: “Technique for its own sake can be disastrous. Because, after a while, you’re so anxious to do things differently, and do them better and funnier and more brilliantly than the next guy, that becomes the goal of the ad, instead of the selling of the merchandise.” “Getting a product known isn’t the answer. Getting it WANTED is the answer.

We’ve seen so many ads over the decades that scream for attention without engaging anyone. And we’ve seen Digital stunts that engage millions without selling anything. These are all wasted opportunities (and squandered marketing dollars!). If the people doing the work had studied the words of Ogilvy and Bernbach their clients would have benefited greatly.

Would you write screenplays without studying the structure of “Casablanca”?

Would an ambitious playwright not read Shakespeare?

If you were a painter or illustrator, could you ignore the works of Picasso?

What David Ogilvy and Bill Bernbach said is beyond relevant today. Actually, the difference between those days and now is that back in their time, these statements were considered opinion. Now, we can look at decades of testing and data and say for certain that they were right. More than right; they were inspired. (Full disclosure, I worked for both Ogilvy and DDB.)

Today, an ad’s chances of success (using sales as the criteria) can be pre-judged based on some very specific factors. My colleagues and I have studied this and we know what works. We have learned that the inclusion of a few simple ingredients will allow for creative that sells and, equally, that without all the elements, the creative will fall flat like a cake without baking powder.

If you want to create advertising that sells, the wisdom exists. Some very smart people have spent precious time recording brilliant advice. It’s all there. Why not read it?

 “The purpose of advertising is to sell. That is what the client is paying for and if that goal does not permeate every idea you get, every word you write, every picture you take, you are a phony and you ought to get out of the business.” – Bill Bernbach

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