Ogilvy Vs. Bernbach (or are they really in opposition?)
As industry insiders (and now, regular viewers of “Mad Men”) know, the business of modern advertising is a ongoing tug-of-war, with creativity on one end of the rope and account service on the other.
When creativity pulls too hard, the demands of selling are often compromised; when account service is too strong, the ad’s impact suffers.
Within the industry there are two creative legends who are known for each resolving the tug-of-war within their agencies, albeit with quite different results. David Ogilvy believed the ultimate success of advertising depended on fastidious research. For Bill Bernbach, creative intuition was the underlying force.
Ogilvy: “A good advertisement is one which sells the product without drawing attention to itself.”And so on. Comparing their most famous ad campaigns makes it seem even more one-sided. Sure, Ogilvy’s “The Man In The Hathaway Shirt” sold millions, but so did Bernbach’s “Lemon” campaign for Volkswagon – and which one do you think was more contemporary and appealing to aspiring copywriters and art directors?
Bernbach: “If your advertising goes unnoticed, everything else is academic.”
Ogilvy: “The most important word in the vocabulary of advertising is TEST. If you pretest your product with consumers, and pretest your advertising, you will do well in the marketplace.”
Bernbach: “Advertising is fundamentally persuasion and persuasion happens to be not a science, but an art.”
Ogilvy: “I do not regard the advertising as entertainment or an art form, but as a medium of information.”
Bernbach: “We don’t ask research to do what it was never meant to do, and that is to get an idea.”
Ogilvy: “Advertising people who ignore research are as dangerous as generals who ignore decodes of enemy signals.”
Bernbach: “I consider research the major culprit in the advertising picture. It has done more to perpetuate creative mediocrity than any other factor.”
Ogilvy: “What you say in advertising is more important than how you say it.”
Bernbach: “Because an appeal makes logical sense is no guarantee that it will work.”
Each of their deaths would bring their respective legacies back into the public eye, but for Bernbach, the industry accolades seemed to come with greater ease.
Ogilvy’s reputation suffered, ironically, upon the publication of “Ogilvy on Advertising” in 1983. With this book, Ogilvy’s “fuddy-duddiness” became legendary among creative people, his wisdom and many creative accomplishments buried under the endless guidelines he laid down that, to modern creatives, were like nails on a chalkboard. “No reverse type.” “Include the brand name in the headline.” “No headlines at the bottoms of ads.” “Never use an illustration without a caption.” And yet...
“I hate rules,” Ogilvy asserted in his introduction. “All I do is report on how consumers react to different stimuli.” Still, to people who came into ad agencies dreaming of the creative freedom they admired in agencies like Bernbach’s, any hint of rules was greeted with scorn. (Not surprisingly, the book was found more often on the shelves of account people than those of creative people.)
But another, less heralded side of Ogilvy was revealed in a 1986 book, “The Unpublished David Ogilvy.” In a July 18, 1977 memo entitled, “Confusion?” he writes:
"For many years you heard me inveigh against “entertainment” in TV commercials and “cleverness” in print advertising. When the advertising world went on a “creative” binge in the late 1960s, I denounced award winners as lunatics...
“Then, two years ago, you began to receive memos from me, complaining that too much of our output was stodgy and dull...
“I woke up to the fact that the majority of our campaigns, while impeccable as to positioning and promise, contained no big idea. They were too dull to penetrate the filter which consumers erect to protect themselves against the daily deluge of advertising. Too dull to be remembered. Too dull to build a brand image. Too dull to sell. (“You cannot bore people into buying your product.”)
“I want all our offices to create campaigns that are second to none in positioning, promise – and brilliant ideas...”
Yes, you can argue that there’s still a world of difference between what Ogilvy and Bernbach each saw as a “brilliant idea.“
But to me, this memo alone upends all the calcified notions of Ogilvy’s creative philosophy as somehow inferior and should recast (and to many, redeem) his reputation in creative circles.
For my generation (and the subsequent generation) of creative people, it’s been too easy to pass off David as more account man than creative person -- too rational, too rigid, too formulaic, especially versus the more intuitive, more daring creative decisions of Bill Bernbach.
But creativity takes many forms. And given the tight constraints he forced himself and his agency to work within, Ogilvy’s successes are just as admirable as those of the envelope-pushing Bernbach.
Which is why, as your self-appointed referee, I’m calling this match...a draw.