William Bernbach doesn’t need your business.

Several years ago, a manager of mine — the creative director at the agency I worked for at the time — recommended I read a book called The Art of Writing Advertising. I don’t remember the specific circumstances of that exchange, but I’m sure he was, in his artfully gentle way, trying to tell me that I knew fuckall about writing ad copy.

I’m not really in the habit of reading books about writing, marketing, and/or advertising. Of course I’ve read Stephen King’s wonderful On Writing and Lynne Truss’ immensely clever Eats, Shoots & Leaves. Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris is a charming and sincere love letter to the act of reading. I’m pretty sure I’ve fantasized about a threesome with Strunk & White, whose decades-old manual The Elements of Style should be kept on every writer’s bookshelf next to the dictionaries, thesauruses, and personal lubricant.

But in general, books about books, or books about writing, lose my interest early. I’d like to be able to blame the authors for pontificating, rambling, or being straight-up boring, but I think it’s mostly that I don’t like being told what to do.

I took the battered paperback as a polite gesture of good faith (yes, I know how), but I didn’t really intend to read it and I certainly didn’t expect to enjoy it.

It is with real shame that I confess to you, reader, that even writers — writers especially — judge books by their covers.

The Art of Writing Advertising is pretty much Mad Men in book form. It’s a series of interviews with some of the fathers of modern advertising: William Bernbach, George Gribbin, David Ogilvy, Leo Burnett, and Rosser Reeves (upon whom Mad Men‘s Don Draper is based).

I know I SAID "Don," but I was really THINKING "Joan." And so were you.

Even if we don’t all know their names, we all know their work. Reeves thought up “melt in your mouth, not in your hand.” Leo Burnett fathered — in what I can only assume was a series of depraved, interspecies entanglements that would make Zeus proud — Toucan Sam, Tony the Tiger, and the Jolly Green Giant. David Ogilvy crapped out more famous ad copy than you could tattoo on the Old Spice Guy’s pectorals. And he was British.

Each interview is fascinating, educational, and full of insight. And though the book’s first run was in 1965, it’s very readable, very modern. It certainly beats the shit out of most of the blogs and opinion columns in circulation today.

But for all that the book has to offer, there is one interview in particular that sticks out at me. And by “sticks out at me,” I mean “whips out of its trousers with the turgid, lewd confidence of a porn star at a prom.” It comes from William Bernbach, who is well-known for his agency’s ingenious Volkswagen ads. Here is his quote in all its veiny glory:

As a matter of fact, I can tell you that a very, very big prospect once said to me, “What would you say, Bill, if you were told exactly where to put the logo and what size it would be.” I had over $10,000,000 riding on my answer, and I said, “I would say we are the wrong agency for you.” Now, in the long run I think this makes for a very healthy agency because we preserve our point of view. It lets us do the kind of creative work we really believe in and not prostitute that talent for 15%. Because, as I say, in the long run the client forgets how he told you to do something. He only remembers whether it worked or not.

Bold is mine. I wanted to put the whole damn thing in bold, but I suppose that would defeat the purpose of emboldening.

I ask you, reader: does ANYONE do this anymore? I ask because I truly don’t know the answer. I assume that the guys at Wieden + Kennedy, or Ogilvy and Mather, or Saatchi & Saatchi, have the clout and wherewithal to tell prospective clients, “Sorry, we’re not your monkey.” But it seems to me that, by and large, we — agencies, freelancers, anyone who stands to make a buck off someone else — don’t know how to articulate the word “no.” We’re afraid to lose their business, yes. But more than that, I think we’re afraid of confrontation. We’re afraid that people won’t like us. It’s easier to just smile and suck it up than to defend the creative integrity of your work.

That’s how you get shit like this happening:

It’s not that creative agencies don’t have any integrity. As individuals, creatives and the non-creatives with whom they work are more committed to doing a project well than to making an easy buck. No one likes to think of themselves as a corporate shill, not even the actual corporate shills.

But we live in a culture where everyone’s opinion matters. Everyone is a special snowflake with their own point of view and their own line of reasoning. We want to be respectful. We want to be fair. We want to hear each other out — even when it’s clear from the get-go that the guy holding the purse strings is a maniac who wouldn’t know a color wheel if it ran him down in cold blood.

So we don’t fight the good fight. Instead of speaking up in defense of our work, we hit the mute button on the speakerphone, curse, bitch, roll our eyes, and then smile through gritted teeth: “Sure, I think we can make all of those changes by tomorrow. 2 p.m.? Heck yeah! I was HOPING you’d ask for even less time!”

This is demoralizing. It’s counterproductive. And it leads to shitty work that no one would otherwise want to put their names on. If you want to earn a reputation as a doormat, this is the fastest way to do it. See what that attitude does for your employee turnover. See what it does for your schedules. If you don’t draw the line somewhere, you will never draw it anywhere. Yes: in the short term, you get the satisfaction of a check and a pat on the head. In the long term, you are well and truly fucked.

It’s true that we have to pick our battles with clients. Sometimes a fight really isn’t worth fighting — and if creating something is an act of communication, then the client-creative relationship must be one of give and take. I really, really believe that when a client hires you to create something, it’s not just because you have a set of skills that they lack (although you do, and you should leverage the shit out of that). They are paying you for your judgment as well as for your expertise. The onus must be on us, the creatives, to try to educate our clients — gently, diplomatically — about why a given decision makes sense for them. Stand behind your work. If you don’t believe enough in what you’ve made to defend it, then you shouldn’t have put that garbage in front of the client to begin with.

If all else fails, be ready to admit that you might not be the right fit for that client. It’s kind of like sex (yeah, yeah, with me it’s always about sex). You need to lay some ground rules out at the start, and discover each other’s quirks and kinks with plenty of respect. But if your partner doesn’t quit tweaking your nerps when you yell out the safe word, or if their idea of a good time involves you, a leash, AND the dog, then you might want to back away slowly and never speak of this again. (And maybe change your address. Just to be safe.) Sometimes it’s just not meant to be.

Otherwise, prepare to be spanked. Hell, maybe you’re into that. But before you invest in a good set of knee pads, take a look at your business card — what does it say? “Creative Professional” or “Daddy’s Little Bitch”?



  1. I love this bit at the end;

    “But before you invest in a good set of knee pads, take a look at your business card — what does it say? “Creative Professional” or “Daddy’s Little Bitch”?”

    Absolutely awesome :D

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