Famous New York Copywriters: Bill Bernbach

Bill Bernbach was one of New York’s finest copywriters. He made his name by being the first person to put copywriters and art directors together in teams.

Bill Bernbach, who was born in New York in 1911, was one of New York’s finest copywriters. Bernbach lent his name to Doyle Dane Bernbach (DDB), which survives to this day as a world-class agency. Bernbach made his name by being the first person to put copywriters and art directors together in teams.

From humble beginnings in The Bronx, Bernbach gained a BA degree from New York University, where he majored in English. After graduation, he worked in the mailroom at Schenley Distillers. Having written an advert for fun for Schenley’s American Cream Whiskey, he was invited to work in the advertising department.

After leaving Schenley at the start of the war, he wrote for Grover Whalen, 1939 World’s Fair organiser, before being headhunted by the William Weintraub agency. After active service, he resumed his career with Grey Advertising, as copywriter and then creative director.

In 1949, he met Ned Doyle and Mac Dane. The three founded the huge agency in Manhattan that survives today as DDB.

At DDB, Bernbach perfected his copywriting skills. With Bernbach at the helm, the agency’s billings shot up from about US$1 million to over US$40 million at his retirement. DDB became the 11th-largest ad agency in America.

Bernbach’s portfolio contains some of advertising’s most iconic moments. He penned the ‘We try harder’ campaign for Avis Car Rental and he thought up ‘You Don’t Have to be Jewish to Love Levy’s’. For VW, he created the ‘Think small’ and ‘Lemon’ ads.

His legacy as the finest New York copywriter is his creativity and his original ideas that were rooted in simplicity. But his greatest achievement might be teaming copywriters with art directors, which had until then been separate factions. Today, even the smallest marketing agency uses this as their model.

Bernbach gained much recognition for his work. He was inducted into the Copywriters’ Hall of Fame in 1964 and the American Advertising Federation Hall of Fame in 1976. He was named Top Advertising Agency Executive in 1969 and he gained the American Academy of Achievement Award in 1976.

Today, a whole new audience has become aware of Bernbach’s name and work, thanks to Mad Men. The AMC TV series is based around a fictional 60s ad agency, Sterling Cooper, and makes frequent references to Bernbach and his radical techniques.

It was this determination to break away from the staid old ways of doing things and to create a new kind of advertising agency that cements Bernbach’s place in history as an advertising great and the finest copywriter New York ever produced.

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