23 Quotes From Bill Bernbach on Advertising & Creativity

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Jami Oetting
Jami Oetting



During the 1950s and 60s, there emerged two schools of thought on adverting. One side, led by Rosser Reeves and David Ogilvy (though his work rarely reflects this) was focused on selling by determining a unique brand position, reinforcing this unique message, and measurement and testing. Advertising was a science. 


On the other side of the debate was Bill Bernbach, who was more focused on using creativity to attract attention, and then sell. This isn't to say he didn't believe in strong messaging and research. He emphasized, however, that successful advertising relied on something that can't be measured -- creativity. As he is quoted saying, "It's like love -- the more you analyze it, the faster it disappears."

Bernbach opened Doyle Dane Bernbach with his two co-founders in 1949. His work, specifically for Volkswagon, Ohrbach's, Levy's, Polaroid, and Avis continues to inspire advertisers and copywriters to this day, and he mentored many of the top creatives of the following generation, including George Lois, Julian Koenig, and Mary Wells, among others. Advertising Age listed him as advertising's #1 most influential person of the 20th century, saying he is "the single most influential creative force in advertising's history."

Bernbach never wrote a book, but his many quotes and remarks do a surprisingly good job of revealing the deeply thoughtful and highly creative man behind some of the most iconic work in advertising's history. Get to know him through these 25 intriguing quotes. 

25 Quotes on Advertising From Bill Bernbach

1) "A great ad campaign will make a bad product fail faster. It will get more people to know it's bad." 

2) “More and more I have come to the conclusion that a principle isn’t a principle until it costs you money.”

3) “Be provocative. But be sure your provocativeness stems from your product. You are not right if in your ad you stand a man on his head just to get attention. You are right if you have him on his head to show how your product keeps things from falling out of his pockets.”

4) “An important idea not communicated persuasively is like having no idea at all.”

5) "You cannot sell a man who isn't listening."

6) “The purpose of advertising is to sell. That is what the client is paying for and if that goal does not permeate every idea you get, every word you write, every picture you take, you are a phony and you ought to get out of the business.”

7) "The most powerful element in advertising is the truth."

8) “Don’t confuse good taste with the absence of taste.”

9) "Just because your ad looks good is no insurance that it will get looked at. How many people do you know who are impeccably groomed ... but dull?"

10) "When we started our agency, we had in mind precisely the kind of people we wanted with us. There were two requirements: You had to be talented and you had to be nice. If you were nice but without talent, we were very sorry, but you just wouldn’t do. We had to ‘make it.’ And only great talent would help us do that. If you were a great talent, but not a nice person, we had no hesitation in saying ‘No.’ Life is too short to sacrifice so much of it, to living with a bastard.”

11) “If you stand for something, you will always find some people for you and some against you. If you stand for nothing, you will find nobody against you, and nobody for you.”

12) “All of us who professionally use the mass media are the shapers of society. We can vulgarize that society. We can brutalize it. Or we can help lift it onto a higher level.”

13) “Most readers come away from their reading not with a clear, precise, detailed registration of its contents on their minds, but rather with a vague, misty idea which was formed as much by the pace, the proportions, the music of the writings as by the literal words themselves.”

14) "There are few things more destructive than an unsound idea persuasively expressed."

15) “Rules are what the artist breaks; the memorable never emerged from a formula."

16) "Advertising doesn't create a product advantage. It can only convey it."

17) “However much we would like advertising to be a science -- because life would be simpler that way -- the fact is that it is not. It is a subtle, ever-changing art, defying formularization, flowering on freshness and withering on imitation; where what was effective one day, for that very reason, will not be effective the next, because it has lost the maximum impact of originality.”

18) “Getting your product known isn’t the answer. Getting it WANTED is the answer.”

19) "Our job is to sell our clients' merchandise ... not ourselves. Our job is to kill the cleverness that makes us shine instead of the product. Our job is to simplify, to tear away the unrelated, to pluck out the weeds that are smothering the product message."

20) "Nobody counts the number of ads you run; they just remember the impression you make."

21) “It is ironic that the very thing that is most suspect by business, that intangible thing called artistry, turns out to be the most practical tool available to it. For it is only an original talent that can vie with all the shocking news events and violence in the world for the attention of the consumer.”

22) "An idea can turn to dust or magic, depending on the talent that rubs against it."

23) "It is insight into human nature that is the key to the communicator's skill. For whereas the writer is concerned with what he puts into his writings, the communicator is concerned with what the reader gets out of it. He therefore becomes a student of how people read or listen."

Click here to learn more about Bill Bernbach and other influential advertising leaders.


Featured image via MM&M

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