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Bernbach’s Internet

By Brett Compton on Jan 13, 2016


This story begins in the late 60s. My father was in journalism school and a man named Bill Bernbach came and spoke. It changed his life. He fell in love with a new kind of advertising industry Bernbach was creating. He would devote the rest of his life to it, to this day, in fact. But to understand why an hour lecture had such an impact, my digitally native millennials, you must first understand what the industry was like before Mr. Bernbach saved it.

Advertising agencies were born out of the publishing industry. The ads stuck to the facts and communicated detailed, newsworthy messages. The process was pretty straightforward. A client contact would gather information and create text to go in the ads. This was given to a graphic designer who would design the ad and pass it off again to a paste-up artist who would literally, by hand, build the ad. Success was being fast and getting it right. It was a waterfall process founded by technically oriented guys. There were no copywriters. It got results because media planners could predict success based on analytics. Buy XX number of impressions and one could expect XX results. Most everyone thought the model was right. Bernbach thought it sucked.

To him, advertising was soulless. It resonated with no one. He believed meaningful, smart advertising would beat the crap out of what his industry had done for 60 plus years. It was a smart business strategy in his mind. So he blew up the model and did it his own way. He hired “copywriters” and paired them with “art directors.” He gave this team a problem to solve and left them alone. They blended art and copy and created ads that stuck. They made people laugh and cry and think. And it worked like crazy. The creative revolution was officially underway. That was the industry my dad fell in love with. He became a copywriter and got to watch the industry transform itself over the next few decades. He’ll tell you to this day he wouldn’t have missed a day of it.

I started in this business in 1992. I was lucky enough to be around for the final season of that creative revolution. Before the 2001 recession and the Internet bludgeoned almost every drop of creativity out of our industry. I always felt like I was cheated of the full experience my mad man father got to live out. But fate has a funny way of bringing things full circle. Today I’m sitting in the infancy of the next creative revolution. Ironically, in the last freaking place on earth I ever expected to find it—an interactive agency.

Two years ago I did something I swore, especially as a copywriter, I would never do. I became the creative director of a 100% digital, born to build websites, PHP-breathing, interactive agency. The only reason I was here was because my brother owned the agency, and we had always wanted to work together before we retired.

The interactive industry’s production process had been pretty straightforward. A client contact would gather the facts and create text to go in a website. This was given to a designer to design the website and pass it off again to developer who would, by hand, build the website. Success was being fast and getting it right. It was a waterfall process founded by technically oriented guys. There were no copywriters. Digital advertising worked because media planners could predict success based on analytics. Buy XX number of impressions and one could expect XX results. Sound familiar? Yep, I was right back in 1965. What the hell had I done?

But soon, I started having some déjà vu moments that gave me hope. The terms were different, but the feelings I got were warmly familiar. Clients were excited about the importance of “messaging.” I kept hearing things like “content is king” and “jab, jab, jab, punch.” I was introduced to the radical notion of working collaboratively in teams to solve problems thanks to an agile workflow. I saw brilliant co-workers, people much smarter than me, have the epiphany that the words we put into the website could actually impact its performance. Even this week, I read a very well respected blog citing that “content would have to be meaningful in the future to be effective.” The cynical ad agency guy in me wants to scream, “no shit, Sherlock.” But I don’t. I can’t. The grin on my face is too wide.

I’m back in 1965.

Much like it happened the first time, a few of our generation’s mad men started blazing the path early. CP+B came out swinging with The Subservient Chicken and brilliant work for Method. Fallon’s BMW Films broke new ground with original content made for the Internet, not TV. Soon after, O&M’s Evolution effort for Dove removed any doubt that online content could go beyond influencing consumers. It could reshape our very beliefs. And yet, as a whole, our industry is just getting warmed up for its next great run.

The Internet isn’t just a media channel anymore. Digital isn’t a department or type of agency. Like the air around us, digital just…is. We’re all connected, all the time. Human to human, machine to machine, humans to machines. That puts new tools at our fingertips every day. Agencies are forming unique teams to thrive in this new playground. Ideas aren’t limited by media plans, budgets, or even time itself. For the first time, ideas really can transcend anything, because that hard line once drawn between creativity and technology is finally gone.

Even some of those original mad men are dipping their toes into these waters. Just the other day my father tells me he was asked to create content. “I told them I didn’t know what content was. They said just write great, short headlines for these photos. Said they’re going on Instragram. So I asked them, basically I’m writing tiny ads instead of big print ones? Uhh…sure. And if they’re really good, people will share them, just like they used to tear an ad out of a magazine and share it? Well…Yes. Okay, looks like I’ve been creating content for about 40 years. I’ll be done tomorrow.”

Welcome to Bernbach’s Internet.



Brett Compton is the Creative Director at Red Clay Interactive. He spent 22 years in classic, full-service agencies prior to joining what he often refers to as a traditional agency for our digitally connected world.

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