Thursday, Jul 11, 2024

The Last Unfair Advantage Over Your Competitors


There is quite a vocal argument going on in the ad industry regarding creativity vs. technology.

Artistry vs. data.

The result of this argument: look at award winning websites. Data dominates. Data steers the UX Design, the architecture for funnels and customer journeys. Creativity is defined as the creativity in the UX design, the layout, the journey.

Creativity, as it was known, understood, respected and rewarded in the ad industry, is buried under the welter of data, the numbers, the magical things that today’s computers can pull out of the data.

Except advertising is all about ideas. Original ideas. The unexpected. And, as the computer experts acknowledge, AI cannot produce ideas. Ideas are born and nurtured in the emotional sensitivity, intellectual curiosity, and artistic capacity of the human heart and mind.

Which is why in the numerous award-winning websites I have visited, I did not once see the very core, the very heart and soul of creative advertising.

I did not see creative concept.

Take a moment to study these campaigns. They are the classics, among the 100 best campaigns of the 20th century. They redefined the advertising industry and redefined their client’s industries.

Or, to put it this way: In the world of fine arts, the acknowledged fact is, “There is art before Picasso, and there is art after Picasso.”

In the ad industry, there is advertising before Bill Bernbach and advertising after Bill Bernbach. Bernbach founded the Doyle Dane Bernbach ad agency and fathered the Creative Revolution that is point zero for the modern ad industry. His  “Think Small” VW campaign is considered the greatest campaign ever – still holding that position these sixty or so years later despite all the campaigns that have followed. His Avis “We try harder” campaign is rated number three.

All the following campaigns embody the principles Bernbach established, and the principle that all the data in the world provided by all the super AI computers in the world cannot provide.

All of the campaigns, despite their different creative executions, have one commonality. They are all built around a concept.

As Benbach stated in an interview: “You must get a sound premise before you even begin to think in terms of being creative. Otherwise, you know, you are going to make indelible something that does not matter.”

A campaign is built around a sound premise, an original concept that unites all the features and benefits of the product or service, unites copy and visuals, unites layout and design, triggering the emotional response of the target audience.

Think Small – VW was introduced into America when there was a growing resistance to the overindulgence of the post-depression, post-WW2 generation. The VW campaign embodied the zeitgeist of the ‘60’s seeking meaningful purpose and values, rebelling against the materialism of the post-war ‘50’s.

We Try Harder – The classic American appreciation and support for the underdog. Ever since the pilgrims, it is a part of the psyche of America.

Levy’s Jewish Rye – The ethnic rye for every ethnicity.

Each campaign has a concept that is carried forth through all its ads. The style of execution, straightforward, humorous, or very human is based on the many factors incorporated in the marketing brief, and the creative vision and personalities of the copywriter/art director team.

Data can chew out numbers. Data can point towards directions. Data can slice, dice and analyze. But data cannot think conceptually, cannot create conceptually. Data has its purpose and place when it serves creativity. When it is allowed to lead, to dominate, to take charge, creativity withers, fades, dies.

Data could never have created the “Got Milk,” the Absolut Vodka, the “Just Do it,” the “For Everything Else there is Master Card” campaigns, to name just a few.

Rather than elaborate further on creativity and concept, I will share with you excerpts of Bernbach’s interview, words of incalculable value if you are an ad creative, or business owner, or simply have creative curiosity.

“You know the old way of doing things. They would have the copywriter write a headline and a piece of body copy and then some boy would take it to the art director, and he would make a layout. Well, it was my feeling that an idea was the important thing. If you were a great craftsman as a writer or an artist, you used those tools to bring that idea to life.

“I felt…and I still feel that way…if two good creative people get together, an art director and a copywriter, sometimes you do not know who is writing the copy and who is doing the art because you get excited about the thought…which is the important thing. Even if you execute a bad thought well, you are not going to get any place. The only answer is to get a great creative idea.

“I know very many good writers who are not good creative people. I know many good graphics men who are not good creative people. They are good technicians.”

By creative, do you mean in the sense of being creative advertising people?

Bernbach: “I mean in the sense of being creative people, in the sense of getting fresh thoughts.”

Then this could apply to fields other than advertising.

Bernbach: “It could apply to shoemaking just as much as it applies to painting. Why people feel you have to be a writer or a painter to be creative I’ll never understand. There are some marketing men, some heads of businesses I have dealt with who are far more creative than most of the art directors and writers I know…because they find fresh, new ways to reach a goal and achieve impact. And in advertising you can measure the efficiency of your ad by its impact. The impact is a direct result of how fresh and original it is, because you react strongly to something you’ve never seen or heard before. If you’ve seen it or heard it before, you just don’t react that strongly. It’s very ironic, you know, that this intangible thing that is so hard to measure is such a practical business tool…being fresh and original. Playing it safe can be the most costly thing in the world because you’re presenting people with an idea they’ve seen before and you won’t have the impact. Of course you can get fresh ideas that are not relevant and that’s no good.

“…We are a hard sell agency. And we are all the harder sell because we say very imaginatively what the advantage of that product is. There is nothing more economical in the world. There is two ways you can go about making your advantage memorable. You can say it a thousand times and it finally sinks in. Or you can say it ten times with the same impact because you have said it in such a fresh way that people cannot forget you.

“You say to me that ‘hard sell’ means anything that makes a lot of sales. I would agree with you. Nobody wants to sell harder than I do. That’s my job. But if you say to me that ‘hard sell’ means only big type and shouting your advantages and doing it the way everybody else does it, then I have to say, ‘You’re throwing your money away.’”

(Bernbach’s agency ran a campaign for Heinz Ketchup – “The Race” – in which they held upside down a Heinz bottle and competitor’s bottle to see which emptied first. Heinz was a poor, s-l-o-w second.)

“Let’s take the hard sell we gave Heinz Ketchup. We went out and found it is thicker and richer than our competition’s. Now suppose we had just put that in big headlines. ‘Heinz Ketchup is thicker and richer.’ That’s the ‘hard sell’ style. Do you for a minute think it would have been as memorable, as remembered as the ketchup race? Which is saying the same thing, but it’s giving you a hook for remembering the advantage. Everybody knows that Heinz Ketchup is tough to get out of the bottle. As a matter of fact, it’s a disadvantage, because some people get angry. We took that very thing that bothers them, that they’re aware of, and made them now think in terms of ‘this is so because we are better than everybody else.’ So we take the thick and the rich and we make you remember it by being creative, by being artful about it instead of just saying ‘We’re thicker and richer.’ We were never anything but hard sell. Never.

“I remember Time magazine calling me up once and saying to me, ‘Now that times are hard, are you going to sell harder in your advertising?’ I said, ‘You must be kidding. Do you mean to say that I wasn’t trying to sell hard before?’ I got very upset with this young man and I told him, ‘Every ad we have ever done, we’ve always tried to be hard sell. We may not have always succeeded, but that was our goal—to make you remember the advantages of our product. Any agency that didn’t do that should be fired.’ And then I said, ‘But you won’t print this because it doesn’t fit into your neat story angle, Hard Times, Hard Sell.’ And he didn’t, you know. You may find some people around who will say, ‘Gee, it’s great. Now that times are a little harder, we’ll just tell clients that we’re the hard sell people.’ That’s just a gimmick way of making a presentation

“Sure. I do not separate creativity from effectiveness. This is my whole point, really, that if you are truly creative in a disciplined way, if you are talking about what people are interested in—which is the discipline—and then talk about it in a very exciting way, you are going to get readership like you never got in your life. You have to. For example, I have often used the example that research says you ought to put a picture of a man crying on the page. OK. I can put him there in such a way that you will look at him and pass by. Or I can put him there in such a way as to make you want to cry. Now, that is an intangible thing. But look at the practical value of that. I have made you stop. I have made you look at that $50,000 page in Life, and made you listen. What is more practical than creativity that stops you and makes you look, listen, and believe?”

In a 1949 manifesto for his new agency, Bernbach wrote, “Let us prove to the world that good taste, good art, good writing can be good selling.” It is an important lesson to remember in an age when marketers and agencies are buried in data and analytics. Advertising is still a business of great ideas.

Data and analytics have removed the responsibility of ad people from coming up with fresh, original, creative ideas.

What a shame.

As Bernbach put it, “It may well be that creativity is the last unfair advantage we’re legally allowed to take over our competitors.”


Chanina Katz has over two decades experience in major Madison Ave. ad agencies developing highly successful strategies and award-winning campaigns for such blue-chip clients as Colgate, RJ Reynolds, Hilton, Home Depot, General Mills, KFC and many others in a wide variety of package goods and services businesses. He provides marketing services for a range of businesses, from start-ups to major corporations. He lectures on marketing and creativity. He can be reached at






On Logic

  The United States is currently facing something it has never previously faced. Its presidential elections are several months away, and its president, who is

Read More »

My Take on the News

  New Hostage Deal in the Works Much has happened over the past week. There have been more fatalities among the IDF forces, and over

Read More »


Subscribe to stay updated