Is Bill Bernbach Really Dead?

By Marty Orzio Posted on Dec 18, 2012

I generally don’t interview a junior unless there’s an open position or some extraordinary reason, such as the kid is the son of the holding company’s CEO. But a recruiter friend told me about a VCU grad who had a “writer’s writer book” and “a very interesting story.” The way she said “a very interesting story” intrigued me enough to schedule him in.

I met Bob, and he actually appeared quite normal – on the thin side, plaid shirt, chinos, and presumably into vinyl. His story began simply enough, too. Since graduating in June, Bob hadn’t yet found a job, having spent many hours working LinkedIn and pounding the pavement until one day, exhausted and discouraged, he sought solace in the New York Public Library. On the third floor’s main reading room, way in the back of the south hall, he found a spot with only one other person at the table. And that’s where Bob saw him – saw, and spoke to Bill Bernbach, the Bill Bernbach.

“So you’re saying, you had the equivalent of an Elvis sighting with Bill Bernbach? In the Public Library?” I said, with one eyebrow on the top of my head.

But the kid was serious; he swore he had seen the legend himself. Mr. Bernbach was wearing a gray suit with a white shirt and dark tie – just like he does in old photos and on YouTube. “Hey, no ad guy dresses like that unless they’re in the cast of Mad Men or they’ve been transported from the 1960s,” Bob reasoned.

Ahh, youth. I remembered one time, in high school, I thought I spotted Bigfoot, but it was only a nightmare in which Cousin Itt attacked me for hitting on Morticia Addams.

“Bill told me that he had to come back to Earth, said there are so many possibilities these days for creativity that he could not contain himself, even in heaven.”

“I suppose it must have been difficult for Bill to be in a place where no one has to try harder.” I then glanced at my watch and wondered why I get all the nut jobs.

Bob continued. He reported that Bill wanted to take a risk and open a new agency…

“Because ‘the riskiest thing we can do is not take a risk’? I know.”

“Exactly. So Bill began to network and meet a lot of influential people. The first person he met was a CFO.”

“A CFO?”

“Actually, Bill was supposed to meet the head of the network, but the head of the network passed him off, joking that the CFO made all the decisions anyway. Bill described him as having a square forehead, square shoulders and square legs, a very no-nonsense CFO. And while Bill tried to talk about ‘properly practiced creativity,’ the CFO thought he was talking about getting creative people to increase both their workload and their billable hours – being very determined to get those damned round pegs to fit into a square hole.”

I knew the type well. For guys like that, a big idea is allowing creatives to make bathroom time billable to food and beverage accounts. “Perhaps that is the new creativity,” I commented.

“Yeah, it was discouraging for Bill. The second person he met was a CEO. And this CEO started off by testing Bill. Imagine testing Bill Bernbach? He asked, ‘Who, so far, has made the best use of Pinterest?’”

“How did Bill do?”

“Having been up in heaven, Bill had a truly global view, so it was easy, and he cited a campaign for UNICEF, where users click on photos from a 13-year old girl in Sierra Leone to see what she needs to live.”

“How’d that go over?”

“The CEO complimented him and emphasized how important it was to innovate.”

“What happened next?”

“Bill said we shouldn’t be so concerned about being the first to do something, otherwise we get caught up in a race for the next technique, where we’re so anxious to do things differently and do them better and more technologically innovative than the next agency that that becomes the goal of the ad, instead of the selling of the merchandise.”

“And how’d that go over?”

“Like a good ad in a focus group – the CEO got all huffy – “You calling me a loser? If there’s a race, Mr. Think Small, then I’m going to be in it – and in it to win big.’ Naturally, Bill moved on.”


“And this time he met a CCO who claimed that advertising was dead. Advertising was dead, print was dead and TV was dying, he claimed.”

“I wonder if he exhibited goth-like tendencies when he was younger.”

“Could be.”

Now personally, I don’t think that the death of print is an entirely bad thing. I once had to pick up the September issue of Vogue magazine for my wife and suffered a hernia, so I was curious how Bill would react.

“Bill asked him if clients aren’t paying us to sell things anymore.”

I supposed I shouldn’t have been surprised that Bill wouldn’t make this a media issue, but I was surprised that Bill’s comment sounded a little smart-assy. “Was Bill losing patience?” I asked.

‘“Look,’ Bill said, ‘it comes down to what it has always come down to: The truth isn’t the truth until people believe you, and they can’t believe you if they don’t know what you’re saying, and they can’t know what you’re saying if they don’t listen to you, and they won’t listen to you if you’re not interesting, and you won’t be interesting unless you say things imaginatively, originally, freshly. Seriously,’ Bill concluded, ‘Is that dead?’ To which the creative director responded, ‘Bill, you’re over thinking it. There’s a 12-year old mentality in this country and every 18- to 40- year-old has one.’”

“Bill didn’t like that, huh?”

“Fortunately, there was a small patch of common ground. The creative director told Bill that it’s all about conversations and Bill agreed, ‘Word of mouth is the best medium of all.’”

“That’s hopeful.”

“But, you know Bill – he had to get to the bottom of it: ‘Word of mouth may be great, but at some point we have to make sure the words are right, define the terms and adapt our techniques to an idea, not an idea to our techniques.”

“Yeah, well, most conversations are boring. Have you listened to the dialogue on Jersey Shore? I suspect that Snooki’s baby is already speaking at a higher grade level than his mother.”

“Bill told him, ‘The difference between the forgettable and the enduring is artistry – and there’s no long-lasting persuasion without it. The essence of impact is saying things the way they’ve never been said before.’”

“Who could disagree with that?”

“The creative director did sort of agree, insomuch that we establish a point of view and it has the kind of impact that creates an open conversation. And Bill agreed – sort of – if we don’t merely establish chatter about a product but are intentional about revealing part of the persuasive argument in the conversation.” This was beginning to remind me of a girlfriend I had in my twenties. She was gorgeous and had an incredible body and I so wanted to make it work, but every time she opened her mouth, I was disappointed and only reminded that there was no veering off the path to a breakup.

“Bill told him that being provocative is a good thing, as long as we are sure our provocativeness stems from our product. The creative director became defensive and, as proof of his work’s effectiveness, boasted about the number of ‘hits’ that it always sparks. Well, Bill brought up the whole Pepsi Refresh thing that involved 60 million people but lost 5% of business and told him, ‘You can say the right thing about a product, or a friend can tweet the right thing about a product, and nobody will listen. You’ve got to say it in such a way that people will feel it in their gut. Because if they don’t feel it, nothing will happen.’”

“I suppose the guy didn’t ‘like’ that. (Get it?) So, forget all those people – why can’t Bill get an account and start something on his own?”

“He said that Sir Martin threatened him with a machete.”

“Oh my. What’s Bill going to do now?”

“He said he would return to heaven via Smith & Wollensky’s, wanting first to grab a single malt scotch with Bob Levenson for old times’ sake. In heaven, he said, he could always hang out with Aristotle and talk rhetoric. In heaven, it’s impossible to ignore what we know to be true.”

The story being over, Bob leaned in and abruptly hit me with, “So, do you have a job for me here?”

I was impressed. “First of all,” I said, “I liked everything except one thing: C’mon, Sir Martin with a machete? A :45 with a silencer, maybe. Anyway, why’d you make all that up?”

“Because it was fun. And I wanted to put my thoughts into a story,” Bob answered.

He was a smart kid, Bob. And after I looked at his book, I told him that, too. “You’re a smart kid, Bob,” I said. “You understand what an idea is. You also understand that ‘Nothing,’ as the great man once said, ‘is so powerful as an insight into human nature,” because your little story managed to hit on a lot of my problems with the current state of the business.”

Bob’s eyebrows fell a notch – I think he could hear a “but” coming.

“But,” I said, “I don’t have anything right now for you, unfortunately. The holding company keeps tight reins on our budget, so all I can do is bookmark your site.” Bob seemed to understand. I did ask that he keep in touch, however, and I sincerely hoped that he would. I also advised him to keep his options open. I told him that I would do the same, especially the part about keeping options open.

Marty recently left Gotham to pursue his options and can be reached at and @martyorzio.


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