The following letter can be found in the second volume of Letters of Note, the last few special editions of which are available to buy here. Reprinted with the kind permission of Doyle Dane Bernach.
Bill Bernbach was one of the original Mad Men. A real-life Don Draper. One of the greats. In May of 1947, at which point he was 35 years of age and Creative Director at Grey Advertising on Fifth Avenue, he noticed a worrying development: as the agency grew in size, they were in danger of losing their creative spark—they were, he believed, falling victim to "bigness." Fearing the worst, he wrote a warning letter to the owners of Grey that has since become famous in the industry and a reminder that often it is best to think small. Two years after writing it, with his advice largely ignored, Bernbach left Grey New York to co-found the hugely successful agency, Doyle Dane Bernbach.
Dear ___________ :
Our agency is getting big. That’s something to be happy about. But it’s something to worry about, too, and I don’t mind telling you I’m damned worried. I’m worried that we’re going to fall into the trap of bigness, that we’re going to worship techniques instead of substance, that we’re going to follow history instead of making it, that we’re going to be drowned by superficialities instead of buoyed up by solid fundamentals. I’m worried lest hardening of the creative arteries begin to set in.
There are a lot of great technicians in advertising. And unfortunately they talk the best game. They know all the rules. They can tell you that people in an ad will get you greater readership. They can tell you that a sentence should be this short or that long. They can tell you that body copy should be broken up for easier reading. They can give you fact after fact after fact. They are the scientists of advertising. But there’s one little rub. Advertising is fundamentally persuasion and persuasion happens to be not a science, but an art.
It’s that creative spark that I’m so jealous of for our agency and that I am so desperately fearful of losing. I don’t want academicians. I don’t want scientists. I don’t want people who do the right things. I want people who do inspiring things.
In the past year I must have interviewed about 80 people – writers and artists. Many of them were from the so-called giants of the agency field. It was appalling to see how few of these people were genuinely creative. Sure, they had advertising know-how. Yes, they were up on advertising technique.
But look beneath the technique and what did you find? A sameness, a mental weariness, a mediocrity of ideas. But they could defend every ad on the basis that it obeyed the rules of advertising. It was like worshiping a ritual instead of the God.
All this is not to say that technique is unimportant. Superior technical skill will make a good ad better. But the danger is a preoccupation with technical skill or the mistaking of technical skill for creative ability. The danger lies in the temptation to buy routinized men who have a formula for advertising. The danger lies in the natural tendency to go after tried-and-true talent that will not make us stand out in competition but rather make us look like all the others.
If we are to advance we must emerge as a distinctive personality. We must develop our own philosophy and not have the advertising philosophy of others imposed on us.
Let us blaze new trails. Let us prove to the world that good taste, good art, and good writing can be good selling.