RELIVING THE REVOLUTION

 

 
The images are familiar. The story is well-documented. But what was it really like to be in advertising during the creative revolution of the 1960s and early 70s, and to be at the center of the uprising? How was the process of making ads different then, and how was it the same? Is there anything a would-be modern ad revolutionary can take from the work, the memories, and the life experiences of the trailblazers?

In keeping with the 'back to the future' theme of this issue (volume 6.4), one.a magazine spoke with four of the giants of advertising's 'golden era.' Phyllis Robinson, who was copy chief at Doyle Dane Bernbach from the day it opened and had a hand in legendary campaigns for Ohrbach's, Clairol, Polaroid, and others; Bob Levenson who came aboard a few years later just as DDB was making its mark and lighting the early sparks of the creative revolution of the 60s; Roy Grace, who helped carry that movement forward in the late 60s and 70s; and Ed McCabe, who helped spread the revolution beyond the realm of DDB, by way of his groundbreaking work at Carl Ally and Scali McCabe Sloves.

The beginning.
ROBINSON: When DDB was starting, Bill Bernbach said, we're going to start a little agency so that we don't have the business types telling us what to do. He said, who knows, we might get up to $10 million in billings. There were 12 people at DDB, including the switchboard operator, when we started. I think I got a 10-dollar-a-week raise, so I was making next to nothing plus 10 dollars a week. It was June 1, 1949. I tend to remember important dates, the day I was born, the day I had a child, and the day DDB started. The mood from the beginning was very informal. We talked together, ate together, compared ads. It was like a wonderful club.

We had a creative head who encouraged us to do original work, who demanded it. This was the first time writers and Art Directors worked together as a team. It was ridiculous to do it any other way, when you think about it, but this was the first time that it became standard practice. Believe me, none of us thought we were starting a revolution. Even Bernbach, who dreamed big dreams, I don't think had any inkling of what was going to happen. He figured we'd be successful, but I don't think he had a notion of turning the ad business on its ear.

We grew very quickly, so I started to hire. I went to the employment agencies and got nothing. Zip. They just didn't get it. As our work got out in the world, people started to see our ads, and a stream of Art Directors and writers came to us. The only creative person I know of who had studied advertising at all was Bernbach. I had not, neither had anyone else I hired. Who were they? Julian Koenig had worked for agencies, I hired him on the basis of some magazine ads he had done. Ron Rosenfeld had a book full of stuff, but what caught my eye was some small space ads he had written for a Baltimore restaurant. Bob Levenson went to our sales promotion department, but the head of the department came to me with a puzzled look on her face and said, 'There's somebody I'd like to hire but I'm not 100% sure. All he has are letters.' He'd been writing letters for the Broadway Maintenance Company. I looked at the letters, and they were brilliant! They were charming and very persuasive. He ended up in our creative department. It seems so odd: How can you hire on the basis of a bunch of letters? In many ways, in the hiring, in the way we worked, we were making it up as we went along.

LEVENSON: We knew we were onto something, in terms of changing the face of the business. Bernbach was always urging us to find ways to attract attention, but also to make the product the star. That's what it was about. You can overlay all kinds of fancy language on top of that, but in the end it's about making somebody want what you're selling. All VW advertising was really one big demonstration.

We were working against what the conventional advertising norms were at the time. At that time, for example, it was ungentlemanly to try to steal someone else's account; it simply wasn't done in the wonderful blue-suited, white-shirted world of J. Walter Thompson and BBDO, which operated more or less gentlemen's clubs. (What a difference from now, where if you have an account the first thing you do is defend against the enemy.) Of course, we were the wild kids on the block; we weren't stealing other people's business, but we were saying in effect, 'Everything the other guys are doing is old-fashioned and stiff and a waste of money.' The really truly conservative companies had no interest in us; we knew we couldn't get a Procter & Gamble. The people who were willing to listen to us, early on, were pretty small companies, Ohrbach's stores and Levy's Jewish Rye bread.

The people who worked at the agency were coming from all over the place. At that time nobody could go to school to be a copywriter, there was no way. And Bill wasn't particularly interested in the training anyway. He cared more about how someone would approach a problem and find the heart of the matter. And put it down in some way that it hadn't been put down before.

GRACE: The vast majority of people in the business at that time were from the New York area: Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan. They were college grads who somehow ended up in advertising and weren't sure how they got there. A lot of the people were just funny guys from the streets of New York who were good at ad-libbing jokes. I don't know of any of them who had had aspirations toward advertising. They just wound up there.

The inspiration always came from the same place, this desire to be the best, to be unusual, to be irreverent, and to do absolutely the best work that was being done at the time. The level of competition at DDB was extremely high. We weren't competing with anyone else. We were competing with each other. It wasn't vicious competition, but it was fierce. I never exchanged ideas with anyone. I was locked into my own thing, and I did my own thing, and I was very closed-mouthed about it. If people wanted to see my work, they could. But I didn't share, and I didn't want others to share with me. This is the way most people were. They were very driven.

At that time, there were not a lot of meetings at DDB. You just spent a lot of the time working. The account people would want to talk to us about something, they'd want to meet with us, and we'd say: 'But we're working,' and there was nothing they could do about it. It was great.

The movement spreads.
McCABE: After DDB made the first move and got things started, other people in the industry noticed that, and you said, 'Oh my God, there's something more to do here.' And you either sort of went in that direction, or you found your own new direction. But you were trying to bust through the status quo and do something new. And I guess we had the feeling we were going to unseat the old guard and create a new world.

But we were also rooted in the past, one of the things you can't overlook is that we all had this grounding in selling that came out of a background of Rosser Reeves, David Ogilvy, and Leo Burnett. We came from watching them and studying the way they did marketing and selling. And then we took that knowledge and turned it into modern-day, fresh executions. (I think nowadays people are more likely to start from the end?the latest trends or techniques, instead of starting from the beginning.) And I think that's why some of that advertising seems to hold up over time, it's just more fundamentally sound.

During that earlier period, we had clients who knew so much more about marketing and communications than they do today. Clients used to be really interested in advertising. And they often had good ideas. A big problem was they often had bad ideas, too. But at least they were involved.

At agencies, there was a tremendous competitiveness but also amazing friendship, like we were all part of the same revolution, from agency to agency. But very competitive, as in, how do I do this better than Krone? When I was practicing, I knew who all the Creative Directors were on every account in advertising, I bet people don't know that today. But how else are you going to find out who you're up against, what they know, who you can hire away if you need 'em. It really was like the NFL, you had to do a lot of homework to succeed, it wasn't just about sitting in a room and making ads. You had that full quiver of arrows.

The beginning of the end.
GRACE: You could write a thousand page book about what changed the advertising business after the golden era, and still not be finished. But to boil it down to a simple sentence: It was the desire to change an art into a science. It's that simple. The era of copy-testing changed the business. Before it was about judgment and trust. DDB turned over all this new ground and dramatically changed the surface of advertising, and a lot of emulators followed. Unfortunately, part of what happened is that not everyone could do what DDB did. A lot of clients trusted their agency to do DDB-like work, and they failed. They wanted some assurance for it, so they tested. It was not a counterrevolution. It was just a crutch that clients felt they needed. In the 70s and 80s, then, they had a hell of a lot to live up to. By the time conglomerates became significant players, all the damage of testing had been done. Another effect of the mergers is that it became harder to maintain interest in the business because agencies began to lose their identities, you couldn't even tell who was who anymore, because this one was bought out by that one. If you follow baseball, it's as if one morning you woke up and they changed all the names of the teams.

McCABE: I think somewhere along the line, the goals shifted. In the past, people knew something and cared something about advertising as it related to selling. And I think now they care more about advertising as it relates to glory. Making ads that your peers like, and winning awards, and getting a raise, and becoming famous, and being part of the world of entertainment. But the change is not just on the agency side, it's on the client side, too. Most of the decisions on the corporate side are being made the same way, 'how can I make a decision that doesn't get me caught doing something stupid, so I can get a promotion. And why should I bother learning about marketing and communications, that isn't where I want to end up anyway.' Today, many clients, total involvement seems to be in saying yes or no, rather than participating.

Another big difference is that there was a great deal of training back then. The elder people in the agency would hold seminars for the younger people and explain something about the history of advertising, what it was all aboutm, so you had a grounding. Now people are more likely to come into the agency thinking they know how to make ads, which they may, but they may not know very much about marketing or selling. Mentoring really went away when the wave of consolidation began. There was a whole layer of people called supervisors, copy supervisors, art supervisors and these were the people that monitored craft stuff. This was a whole other level of supervision and training that got taken out.

LEVENSON: My sense is that one thing that happened as the 15% commission started to go away is that agencies began to cut back on the number of people in the creative department. And this meant there wasn't as much time to work on a campaign. Back in the 60s, the rule of thumb at big agencies was to have 10 people per million dollars of billing; the rule of thumb now is less than one person per million dollars in billing. That brings along with it a lot of changes. And everyone as far as I can tell is kind of stressed out in the creative departments in big agencies.

Another change is that agencies have to present multiple campaigns to a prospect, whereas at DDB, we sort of had our own rule of thumb that we would only present one campaign. Maybe that was cockiness on our part, but it seemed like faith in our work, we used to say, 'Sorry, we're not going to show you our wastebasket.'

The present.
GRACE: I think it's important today for agencies to maintain that same sense of fun, a sense that you should want to come to work every day and enjoy what you are doing. It should not be an atmosphere of fearfulness and client domination but one of doing the best work possible. You don't go through one door to get somewhere. You go through all the doors your predecessors went through first. What's good in advertising today is good because it's using that same vocabulary from the past.

McCABE: Lately, I'm seeing more work that I can admire, pockets of really smart stuff. Whereas until recently, I was seeing horrible stuff. Now I look at Coors and I say these guys have got to be hurting Budweiser and Miller. And I look at IBM's advertising and it's terrific. So something good may be going on right now; we'll see. I think it's important for agencies to remain focused on trying to find clients who 'get it.'

Unfortunately, a lot of agencies are just trying to find clients to pay the bills, because of the economy. But keep in mind, the ad business has always been totally dependent on the fortunes of clients's if they're having bad times, we have bad times. That's a cloud that hung over the business just as much in the old days. The difference was back then you had a group of revolutionaries trying to reinvent the world, and they were able to look past those clouds and say, 'The hell with it, we're gonna do it this way and we're going to make it work.'



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