Saturday, December 17, 2011

A career change right in my little office.

        When I was about four months into my first job in Chicago, another young writer, Dennis Altman, came into my office and changed my career. He showed me the difference between "making ads" and advertising to people.

         We've all grown up with advertising, and researchers say that by the time we're adults we've seen about 250,000 commercials. We know exactly what the cliches and conventions are.

         Dennis had a wad of magazine ads in his hands and pinned them up on the cork board in my room. They were different than others. Volkswagen Beetle ads, Clairol ads, Bekins Moving ads, Avis ads. He said,"Study these. I'll be back." Then he left, I studied, and I was charmed.

         When Dennis came back he said this was happening in New York, and I should learn it. Ads with wit and humor. Ads that talked to smart people, because all people are smarter than we think. Ads that are fun to read, so they must have been fun to write.

          I never went back to writing addy ads again. The ads Dennis showed me were all done by Doyle Dane Bernbach, the New York agency that launched what has been called "advertising's Golden Age." The layouts weren't zany, they were clear. But you couldn't understand the headlines without looking at the visuals, and vice versa. The copy was written as well as anything in the New Yorker magazine.

          The idea was Bill Bernbach's, a writer from Brooklyn. The impact was spectacular. Soon every agency tried to do "Doyle Dane ads." They copied all the easy things, like the typefaces and the periods at the end of headlines, and the picture-caption layouts. But these agencies didn't get it; their ads fell short. The mind-changing ideas were missing, and so was the confidence in the reader.

           Doyle Dane liked to put their ads in the New Yorker, so I was down at the cigar counter in our building each Wednesday afternoon when the magazine was delivered. I ripped out the ads and pinned them up in my office. Everyone in the agency stopped in during the week to see my new collection. A few people were interested; others just shook their heads and left.

           Those ads taught me a lot about advertising. First I copied them, then I emulated them, then I was able to think in a similar way so that people could  enjoy and be persuaded by them.

            It took 25 years for me to finally go up to Doyle Dane Bernbach and shake Bill Bernbach's hand and tell him how much he meant to me.

            I got the feeling he was used to it.


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