Tuesday, July 12, 2011

How I got into advertising and why they let me stay.

     My first job in Chicago was at Edward H. Weiss & Company. (The phone operator, who had to say that mouthful hundreds of times a day, got it down to one word: "Schweissancompany".)

      Ed Weiss was my mother's cousin's husband, so maybe he felt obligated to hire me. I loved his wife, Ruthie, who had taken me under her wing as a boy and nurtured my interest in the theater, buying me plays for every lifecycle occasion. Both Ed and Ruthie lived big.

       They always had the best art in their house (Ed painted too, inspired by the drip method of Jackson Pollack) ---- and the best parties. Ruthie often invited me, to bring up my culture quotient. Interesting people were always at their house: authors, booksellers, performance artists, doctors, and fellow directors with Ed on the University of Chicago Board of Trustees and the Chicago Institute of Psychoanalysis. I begged Ed to give me a job, and Ruthie made sure he did.

      About my third week at the agency a bright young writer, whom the agency hired from New York, walked into my office. His name was Dennis, and under his arm he had dozens of ads ripped from magazines. Using my push-pins, he displayed the ads on my wall.

       "Study these. Read every word," Dennis said. "They're what's happening in advertising. They're changing everything."

       I took Dennis' orders, and those ads changed me. They were the Volkswagen and Avis ads that Bill Bernbach was directing at Doyle Dane Bernbach. I read them, re-read them, studied them, and copied them. And once I got what Bernbach was doing, I could never go back to ordinary advertising again.

       I still read these ads --- I read them to my advertising classes--- and I point out the kinds of things I've learned from them. They're adult, intelligent, human, handsomely art directed and deftly written. They made a cheap foreign car the darling of America, and captured our love of the underdog who tries harder.

      Ed Weiss got me into advertising, Dennis pinned my future to my wall, and making Bill Bernbach's philosophy my own kept me in demand in the business. Today, Ed is gone.  Dennis is a professor of communications at the University of Kentucky, passing along the message he gave me. And in my den you'll find something I found at a flea market. A Bill Bernbach lunch box with his photo on it, apparently made for an agency picnic. As long as I'm in advertising, it's the only place for my pencils.

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