Sunday, October 23, 2011

Book Review: "Think Small."

There have been books singling out advertising agencies (“Chiat Day: The First 25 Years,” “25 Years of Fallon”), advertising eras (“When Advertising Tried Harder,” “Advertising’s Ten Best of the Decade, 1980-1990”) and even advertising campaigns (“The Absolut Book,” “The Got Milk Book”), but this is likely the first book to focus on a single ad.

Given that, it would have been easy for this book to fall prey to hyperbole and hero worship. After all, not only is this the story behind what the book calls “the greatest ad ever written” – Volkswagen’s “Think Small” ad – it also intersects with the ad agency and the people who were the primary drivers of advertising’s creative revolution of the 1960s.

Instead, “Think Small: The Story Of The World’s Greatest Ad“ by Dominik Imseng, is written in the same kind of crisp, low-key style as the body copy in a Volkswagen ad (every page is laid out like a Volkswagen ad copy block, too ). It makes an easy, enjoyable read, building to the seminal moment when the paths of Bill Bernbach and his agency, the Volkswagen brand, and a rejection of the Madison Avenue hard-sell all combined to set the stage for the ground-breaking campaign.

Like Steve Jobs, another innovator who commanded great loyalty from his employees, Bill Bernbach is recalled as both visionary and brutally demanding. “You really did not want to have him turn something down…because sometimes, he would get nasty about it,” former DDB copywriter Bob Levinson tells Imseng.

Bernbach was the son of immigrant from Eastern Europe, but the clichéd beginning of a success story ends here. Though Bernbach downplayed his early life in the Bronx, his father was actually a successful designer of women’s clothes, and Bill himself graduated from New York University in 1933. His self-confidence and ambition had carried him through a couple of early promotional jobs, but it was humility brought on by a year’s unemployment that seemed to get him his first job in advertising. When asked why he should be hired over the other applicants, Bernbach replied, “I don’t know why I should have it. I don’t even know if I’m equipped.”

But as George Lois, an early DDB art director (and an advertising legend in his own right) tells Imseng, “the seed for the Creative Revolution was planted” at that agency when Bernbach met graphic designer Paul Rand. Working closely with Rand, a brilliant conceptual artist, spurred Bernbach’s passion to break out of the typical ad agency structure of the time. Instead of the copywriter conceptualizing the ad alone and then handing off the copy to a commercial artist to be laid out, Bernbach realized the creative process could be much stronger if the writer and artist actually worked together, sharing ideas and feeding off each other’s inspirations.

At the same time, spurred by the clever, sophisticated ads he was creating for clients like Ohrbach’s department store, Bernbach was pioneering an approach that rejected dependence on the pseudo-scientific principals of modern marketing, like the mind-numbing repetitiveness of Unique Selling Proposition as advocated by the Ted Bates Agency’s Rosser Reeves.

These philosophies would form the basis of Bernbach’s “manifesto of the Creative Revolution” as Imseng calls it – actually a letter to his then-bosses at Grey advertising, in which he exhorts, “Let us blaze new trails, let us prove to the world that good taste, good art, good writing can be good selling.”

The stage was set for his agency, Doyle Dane Bernbach, and this is where the book truly surprises, drawing on Imseng’s interviews from several of the surviving players.

Like the Volkswagen Beetle – first imported to America the same year Doyle Dane Bernbach opened its doors – DDB was out of sync with the industry around it. Volkswagen was a holdover of Hitler’s Germany, small and oddly shaped, at a time when Detroit’s autos were big and sleek, a reflection of American dominance and prosperity after WWII. Similarly, DDB, with two of its three principals being Jewish (including Bernbach), stood in stark contrast to the dominant WASPish, Ivy League-staffed agencies.

But unable to crack the big leagues of automobile and packaged goods accounts, DDB was left with second-tier clients like Ohrbach’s department store and Levy’s Jewish Rye bread. The fresh, playful ads that resulted were both a rejection of Madison Avenue conformity and the client toadyism that went hand-in-hand with it, and brought this upstart young agency to the attention of Volkswagen.

Yet far from being a fait accompli, the “Think Small” ad – like so many innovations – was a happy accident, its inspiration originally buried in one of the final paragraphs of another ad prepared by writer Julian Koenig and art director Helmut Krone:

“Maybe we got so big because we think small,” the sentence read.

Given how it set the tone not just for the Volkswagen campaign, but for DDB and the whole creative revolution that followed, you’ll be surprised to learn how ambiguous Krone felt about it. He initially rejected the line as too abstract. In fact, he hated it, as well as the whole approach of selling the VW as an “honest” car (Krone wanted to “Americanize” the car along the lines of “See the U.S.A. in your Chevrolet.”) – but was finally persuaded to lay it out. (Bernbach, by all accounts, was only tangentially involved in the Volkswagen creative.)

Imseng tracks the ad’s evolution through several versions of copy and layouts. Krone, ever the perfectionist, used every opportunity to re-proportion the headline and the car, in subtle ways that the average reader surely never noticed. “If Krone were still alive, he would still be working on that ad,” one former colleague observes. (Imseng helpfully provides every version in an appendix so the today’s reader can compare all the differences.)

With that ad as a template, the VW campaign found both its voice and its visual style -- honest, simple and sincere, standing out among the glamorized, bigger-is-better advertising of Detroit.

As Imseng dryly observes, “by using self-deprecation and irony – traditional elements of Yiddish humor, DDB sold Hitler’s car by making it Jewish.”

In the final chapter, Imseng presents an interview with Alex Bogusky of Crispin Porter + Bogusky, whose own brand of rule-breaking, envelope-pushing thinking makes him, in Imseng’s view, “the new Bill Bernbach.” But for all Bogusky’s successes, it’s hard to put the edgy irrelevance of the “Subservient Chicken” Internet sensation into the same league as the understated yet powerful “Think Small” ad that was “just facts and wit and charm, giving the Beetle the personality of a lovable underdog.”

“Think Small:
The Story Of The World’s Greatest Ad”
by Dominik Imseng
Full Stop Press