Standing a mere 5’7’’ and soft-spoken, Bill Bernbach didn’t look or sound like he would change the world. And yet he did.
Born in New York City on August 13, 1911, as one of four children, Bernbach would joke that his parents were too poor to give him a middle name. But that wasn’t true: his father Jacob—a Jewish immigrant from Eastern Europe—was a successful designer of women’s clothes.
Little Bill enjoyed reading and playing the piano. He developed an early appreciation for art and had a natural talent for writing. As a young man, Bernbach attended New York University where he received a bachelor’s degree in English literature in 1933. At least that’s what he would later tell reporters to give himself the aura of an artist. In reality, Bernbach graduated—somewhat more prosaically—from New York University’s School of Commerce, Accounts and Finance, obtaining a bachelor’s degree in commercial science with a major in marketing.
Either way, entering the world of work in 1933—right in the middle of the Great Depression—made it very hard to get a job. Bernbach eventually found one in the mailroom of Schenley Distillers in Midtown Manhattan, with a meagre salary of $16 a week. The office boy quickly became the head of the mailroom, but had other ambitions, with a keen desire to break into advertising.
In between deliveries, Bernbach wrote ads for Schenley’s various liquor brands and sent the one he liked best—for American Cream Whiskey—to Lord & Thomas, Schenley’s respected advertising agency. He received no response, but sometime later, Bernbach opened up The New York Times and found his ad idea produced, the words exactly as he had written them. With the self-confidence that would become his trademark, Bernbach went to Lord & Thomas to get his letter back. Having proved his intellectual property to the secretary of Lewis Rosenstiel, Schenley’s then President, the aspiring copywriter was given a raise and reassigned to the marketing and advertising department—much to the annoyance of its head, one Mr. Greenlee, who told him, “Don’t think because you went to college you’re going to be a big shot around here.”
“I don’t think anything about my going to college,” Bernbach replied. “I just don’t want it to be held against me.”
It wasn’t long before the young man became the protégé of yet another powerful Schenley figure: Chairman of the Board Grover Whalen. The prominent businessman and politician made Bernbach his personal assistant and took him along on a business trip to Washington, instructing Bill on the art of tipping and teaching him a little savoir-faire.
When Whalen left Schenley in 1935 to run the 1939 New York World’s Fair, his assistant went along. First Bernbach worked in the Fair’s PR department, producing articles and brochures, then he started writing speeches for Whalen and civic dignitaries who visited the Fair. His job would have a major influence on Bernbach’s future advertising philosophy: not only did he learn how language could be used to effectively persuade people—he also learnt that people are persuaded more easily if you respect their intelligence.
After the Fair closed in 1940, Bernbach was unemployed for a full year. With only his newly-wed wife’s small pay as a receptionist, the young couple’s financial situation became so bad that Bill had to ask his parents for help. But they refused, angry about their son’s marriage to a non-Jewish girl. On realising the couple’s despair, a Schenley executive, who was friendly with them, recommended Bill to William Weintraub who had just started an advertising agency, with Schenley Distillers as one of its first clients.
“I have three guys applying for this copy job,” Weintraub told Bernbach, “why don’t you write me a letter telling me why you should have it?”
“I don’t know why I should have it,” Bernbach replied. “I don’t even know if I’m equipped.”
“Why don’t you write the letter anyway?”
The letter must have been good: at age 30, Bill Bernbach landed his first real job in advertising.
Paul Rand was 27 when Bernbach joined the Weintraub agency, yet the graphic designer was already a star.
Born Peretz Rosenbaum in the Brooklyn section of New York City, Rand was enrolled at Pratt Institute and Parsons The New School for Design, but was mainly self-taught. He would spend his days in bookshops flicking through Gebrauchsgrafik and Commercial Art, two European graphic arts magazines that introduced Rand to the modernist art school called the Bauhaus, founded by Walter Gropius in Weimar, Germany, in 1919. With artist lecturers such as Max Bill, Marcel Breuer, Lyonel Feininger, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, László Moholy-Nagy or Piet Mondrian, the unadorned Bauhaus style—seeking complete harmony between function and form—would have a worldwide impact on art, architecture, graphic design, interior design, industrial design and typography. This was despite Hitler shutting down the school in 1933, considering it a stronghold of communist propaganda.
In 1936, Rand was hired as a freelance designer for the quarterly men’s fashion magazine Apparel Arts. The freshness of his page design and Rand’s talent for transforming ordinary photographs into explosive compositions quickly earned him a full-time job plus an offer to work for the men’s magazine Esquire. On top of this, Rand started to create covers for the cultural magazine Direction, which he designed without charge in exchange for artistic freedom. It was with these radically modernist covers—especially the December 1940 issue, looking like it had been wrapped in barbed wire—that Rand’s work began to receive international recognition.
In 1941, the brilliant graphic mind took on yet another challenge: when William Weintraub started his own ad agency, Rand joined him as head of art. From the beginning, his work changed the look and feel of American advertising. Stark, witty and eye-catching, Rand’s ads did more than simply illustrate the headlines or slogans of copywriters—they were ideas in themselves, visual ideas.
Back then, this was something completely new. Traditionally, ads were conceived by copywriters who turned the advertising proposition—what the client wanted to communicate—into a headline and body copy. An account executive handed their typescript along with a drawing of the suggested layout to a ‘commercial artist’ or ‘visualiser’ to create the final ad. Since the copywriter and the commercial artist were usually working on separate floors, the two often wouldn’t even know each other.
Rand completely ignored this traditional gap between ‘conceptual’ copywriters and ‘executional’ art directors. This impressed Bernbach since he understood that treating the art director as an equal would make perfect sense. Bob Gage, another ingenious graphic mind whom Bernbach would later work with, knew why: “Two people who respect each other sit in the same room for a length of time and arrive at a state of … free association, where the mention of one idea will lead to another idea, and then to another.” The art director might suggest a headline, the writer a visual. The entire ad is conceived as a whole, in a kind of ping pong between disciplines. The result, according to advertising historian Stephen Fox, is a “combination of the visual and the words coming together and forming a third bigger thing”.
Blending their talents on ads for the aperitif Dubonnet, the milliner Lee Hats and the department store Ohrbach’s, Bernbach and Rand became close friends, visiting art galleries and museums during lunch breaks and talking about the need for a new kind of advertising that would always be focused on one great thing—a powerful idea.
The famous art director George Lois, who knew both Rand and Bernbach very well, recalls:
“The seed for advertising’s Creative Revolution was planted when Bernbach met Rand at the Weintraub agency. Here was an art director who not only wrote and designed his own ads—he also didn’t take any shit from anybody. Meeting Rand, Bernbach had an epiphany about the whole creative process. He realised that advertising could be ten times better if a talented writer works with a talented art director. In fact, I told Rand once, ‘When Bill Bernbach met you, it was like Columbus discovering America.’”
And vice versa: “This was my first encounter with a copywriter,” Rand said, “who understood visual ideas and who didn’t come in with a yellow copy pad and a preconceived notion of what the layout should look like.”
The remarkable fruits of Rand and Bernbach’s collaboration are still included in just about every book on the history of graphic design. A particular favourite is Mechanized Mules of Victory, a spiral-bound brochure with embossed cover for the armored vehicle manufacturer The Autocar Company. Produced in 1942, it contains a dozen blocks of perfectly set copy written by Bernbach, explaining how the company’s anti-tank vehicles and troop carriers were “helping to build for America a motorised Armada such as the world has never seen.”
Ugly Is Only Skin-Deep: The Story of the Ads That Changed the World by Dominik Imseng is published on September 28; more info at volkswagen-ads.com
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