Famous Advertisers in History: Bill Bernbach

Once in a while, someone challenges the status quo. They arrive with new ideas, energy, and a fresh take on the stale hum-drum we’ve all grown used to. Everyone flocks to people like this. Why? Perhaps because we all like an occasional breath of fresh air. We’re drawn to people who are excited, passionate, and bursting with enthusiasm about trying something no one has ever done before.

Bill Bernbach was one of those people.He arrived on the advertising scene and virtually redesigned it. He tried new ideas. He took risks. He started his own agency. He poured into other legendary creatives. And the advertising industry was never the same. 

His revolutionary ideas seemed to have one underlying principle that governed them all, a principle that’s best explained in his own words.

“Rules are what the artist breaks; the memorable never emerged from a formula.”

A brief look at some of his campaigns show that he practiced what he preached. His unique work for the retail shop Ohrbach’s transformed the way people viewed the shop. Instead of seeing it as a cheap store, they saw it as their way to dress fashionably while still living within their means. How did he do this? With a gossiping cat and some brilliant copy.cat

Bernbach’s creativity was endless. Volkswagen came to him and asked if he could cast them in a more positive light as he did for Ohrbach’s. He accepted the challenge and proceeded to break all the rules for advertising cars by calling theirs a lemon. Risky? Perhaps. Genius? For sure. The way he positions Volkwagens as the reliable, go-to car is truly brilliant.


Bringing the underdogs into the limelight seemed to be Bill’s specialty. He wasn’t afraid to create something big for his underdog clients either. If he was going to advertise for them, he was going to give their competitors a run for their money. The rental car company Avis was being crushed by a much larger rental company and honestly just needed a break. When they hired Bill, he chose not to make them appear to be neck and neck with their competitor. Instead, he used where they were to their advantage and unabashedly declared that Avis was in second place.


And he convinced consumers that Avis’s second-place ranking was the very reason people should rent a car from them.


I don’t know about you, but I believe that even today, Bill Bernbach’s risky yet realistic advertising is a breath of fresh air. What would happen if more ads could make consumers lean in closer, read the copy all the way to the end. . . and smile?

I’d like to find out.

[All photos credited to DDB]

Thanks for reading! By the way – if you enjoyed this post, you’d probably also like to read about Mary Wells Lawrence and David Ogilvy. (Mary actually worked for Bill at the beginning of her career and had a big hand in some of his most iconic advertising!


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