It’s Not Art, It’s Commerce

The Art of Writing Advertising:  Conversations
with Masters of the Craft
Denis Higgins

art-adWhen the going gets tough, I turn to the masters. Surely I didn’t  make up what I’ve spent a working lifetime learning.

That this volume, which first appeared in 1965, is still in print is testimony to the high regard in which  the conversationalists are held even at the remove of a half-century or so. You might not know that from the advertising we see. And some of these are less loved than others. But they’re the giants of mid-20th century advertising.

This quick read originally appeared as a series in Advertising Age. My agency career began when Adweek was ascendant. By contrast, Ad Age (and don’t you just love the way that also reads as adage?) was the client magazine. But in  the 60s AA was the upstart and Printer’s Ink was the not so venerable elder.

The premise here was simple. Take a tape recorder (and one wonders just what sort of intrusive, reel-to-reel device that was) and ask essentially the same questions of 5 living members of the Copywriter’s Hall of Fame. (Yes, there was such a thing. Advertising egos are both large and fragile.)

Here’s the lineup:

Bill Bernbach (DDB)

Bill Bernbach (DDB)

Leading off, Bill Bernbach, co-founder of Doyle Dane Bernbach (DDB), the shop most closely associated with the creative revolution of the 1960s.

Next up, Leo Burnett, Chicago‘s master adman, who laid the foundation of what was, at one oxymoronic time, the world’s only single-office, eponymous global agency.

Right in the middle of the pack, George Gribbin of Young & Rubicam (Y&R). Nowadays a big, global packaged-goods agency, there was a time when Y&R were the new kids on the block and Grib was part of that.

Leo Burnett

Leo Burnett (Leo Burnett)

Batting clean up is David Ogilvy, the stove salesman turned Gallup researcher turned copywriter/agency founder (Ogilvy & Mather née Ogilvy Benson & Mather). Ogilvy the man has always loomed large in my esteem.

Rounding out the order is Rosser Reeves, the man who built the Ted Bates Agency and developed the USP (that’s Unique Selling Proposition). In an almost Mad Men like twist Reeves is also David Ogilvy’s brother-in-law. Talk about the family business.


David Ogilvy (Ogivy & Mather, originally Ogilvy, Benson & Mather)

There is no sense in going into what each says because each has something important to say. Taken as a whole it’ s as good a way to simulate your thinking about copy, advertising and the role of promotion in the marketing mix as  you’ll ever find. I’m also a fan of a book that takes two train rides to read and absorb. I ought to dig these chestnuts out more often because they are worth the reread.

Rosser Reeves

Rosser Reeves (The Ted Bates Agency)

Some striking contrasts with the present moment do present themselves. Each of these masters first made his mark in print, the original advertising  medium. By comparison to much of today’s print advertising these guys all ran on at the mouth. They’re also quick to quote or note the influence of  two notables that came before them: Claude Hopkins and John Kennedy.

If you don’t recognize those last two names (and the last is most decidedly not an American president) you need to run right out and start learning. Hopkins penned Scientific Advertising, a book that David Ogilvy once said had to be read 14 times before one could consider himself an ad man. Kennedy, if I recall correctly, was the master who said advertising was salesmanship  in print.

That last point is one with which all  these Hall of Famers would agree. The reason these guys built big, lasting agencies wasn’t that they were clever, although they were. It’s that they understood the purpose of their business was to sell the client’s products. At one point the O&M dictum was ‘We Sell or Else,’ a phrase that by the 1990s had been relegated to the stationery of what was then still O&M Direct.

If advertising isn’t selling I’m not quite sure what its purpose is. The causal chain I’m often asked to believe in–grab the consumer’s attention, entertain them , persuade them to accept the brand in their mental shelf space, reinforce the brand attributes, sit back and wait for the cash to roll in–seems not to work in practice. There’s a reason 75% or more of marketing spending is on promotions and not advertising but you’d never know it from the conventional wisdom.

Perhaps it’s because today’s practitioners work at some remove from the public. Bill Bernbach said he rode the BMT (that’s one of New York‘s three subway systems; at least it was before the move ot numbers and letters) to keep in touch with what real people were paying attention to. Leo Burnett kept a box of colloquialisms gathered in his travels in the drawer of his desk. Rosser Reeves believed in clubbing the consumer over the head with the same message forever if it moved units. There’s nothing uncreative about ‘Melts in Your Mouth, Not in You Hands’ or ‘It Takes a Licking and Keeps on Ticking’ although it bores a certain type of creative mind to death.

While all of these gents (and they are indeed all gents) are unafraid of selling, it’s Reeves who has garnered more of my attention over the years. Among direct marketers, the highest creative award is the Caples, named for a legendary copywriter who had a control ad run constantly for 32 years! At the time Reeves was interviewed, the Bates agency had been running the same Excedrin ad for 8 years at whatever weight a million dollars a month bought. Discipline like that is unheard of anymore and, I’d suggest, admirable.

Issac Newton allegedly said that if had been able to see farther it was because he stood on the shoulders of giants. Advertising sure isn’t physics, but we all always have something to learn.

It’s worth delving deeper into the minds of these masters. There are books penned by or written about three of them (David Ogilvy wrote more than one) that I’ve found helpful in forming my own thinking. Many of these are out of print and will set you back a pretty penny. It’s worth it.

Bill Bernbach’s Bookbernbach-book
by Bill  Levenson and Evelyn Bernbach



DO_confessionsConfessions of an Advertising Man
by David Ogilvy




Ogilvy_onOgilvy on Advertising|
by David Ogilvy




rosser-reeves-reality-advertisingReality in Advertising
by Rosser Reeeves




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