Sales Effectiveness Drives Creativity, Not the Poet's Muse

There's a lot to like in this fascinating 1947 resignation letter from Bill Bernbach. Some of his statements, however, expose much of what is wrong with the advertising industry even to this day.

I am reacting to general agency creative people who think that making money for their clients is wonderful but not essential. Worse yet, they live under the illusion that aesthetics and good taste attract sales like bees to honey.

Years of controlled direct marketing testing contradict this perception. Direct marketers know that entertaining advertising and visually stunning graphics (except for product photos, of course) often decrease sales by diverting the prospect's attention from the product's benefits.

Great creative should not attract attention to itself.

Here's the unedited letter.


May 15, 1947

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 sort 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 man 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.

Respectfully, Bill Bernbach

One problem revolves around who the star is in this conversation. The letter's message appears to worship at the altar of the agency rather than the client's products. At the end it finally makes mention of the writer's and artist's primary mission: "good art and good writing can be good selling." I would have said that good art and good writing must be good selling.

He implies that great creative comes primarily from inspiration rather than proven selling methods. So often this means avoiding proven selling words like free, new, two for one, guarantee, introducing, and other such words because they lack originality.

Test after test in the real world prove that originality can actually decrease sales results. Creative people who focus on the aesthetics rather than the selling have a passion for their craft -- often at the client's expense. In fact, creative teams in the advertising industry tend to think of themselves as fine artists rather than moneymakers for clients.

Client's get tired of spending and spending without accountability. We should retain our passion for excellence without forgetting why we do what we do. It can't just be about finesse, taste or even originality. It's about achieving superior sales results.

Agency "creative driven" people often do not understand that true creativity moves prospects or customers to respond. David Ogilvy believed that his writers should work in direct response to hone their craft because he was aware of their temptation to forget that their primary creative goal is to sell, not win awards.

Mr Bernbach goes on to say: "Advertising is fundamentally persuasion and persuasion happens to be not a science, but an art." That is partially true. But persuasion comes out of the abundance of the science. Direct marketing testing relies on this principle.

Sales effectiveness drives creativity, not the poet's muse.

Clearly Mr. Bernbach does not believe that science has no place in effective creative. But he sees art as the primary leader in the process. Underneath the surface, he appears to bemoan the idea that science somehow corrupts the purity of his work.

He laments the lack of the creative spark in the 80 creative people he had recently interviewed for creative positions. He reinforces his point by saying: "If we are to advance we must emerge as a distinctive personality."

Why? His job is to leverage the client's investment into ever greater returns, That should be the agency's "distinctive personality." His true role is that of a client's salesman in disguise.

No wonder creative people have a reputation as Prima Donnas! Some wouldn't be caught dead selling anything!

In defense of his letter, we do not know the reality of his environment. It is likely that some of his internal "technicians" were basing their research on flawed interpretations of subjective research rather than actual sales results. In that case, his plea makes more sense.

In direct marketing, our science looks at actual behavior rather than what people say. In that respect, I would have to agree with him. In the absence of accurate knowledge, all you have left is gut feeling and intuition. That trap was created by agencies who reduced their role to building awareness and demand with little understanding or regard to their advertising's real impact on sales. Direct marketers continue to fight this self-induced limitation with better tracking and reliance on transactional databases.

This lack of discipline is no longer accepted by clients. And I believe they never should have. There were always ways to evaluate the sales impact of advertising if properly structured.

Instead of results, general advertisers focused on aesthetic purity and originality. Such philosophies deserve a painful death. Clients have a right and obligation to know what their advertising programs contribute to their growth and profitability.

The bottom line --we need to combine our knowledge of what prospects respond to with superior creativity to make money for our clients. But remember, the final vote does not come from the creative team, the agency or even the client. The decision maker is the customer's vote to buy or not.

Posted on January 19, 2016 and filed under Research, Direct Response Creative.