Bill Bernbach’s “trap of bigness”

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I love the blog Letters of Note. If you haven’t come across it in your digital travels, it’s well worth a look. One of my favourite letters (among many) published on the site is written by famed ad man, Bill Bernbach.

He’s described in the introduction to the letter as “a real-life Don Draper… one of the greats”. But in 1947 at the age of 35 he didn’t have that reputation. That was the year in which he wrote to the owners of the quickly-expanding Grey Advertising, where he worked as the Creative Director, warning against what he saw them turning into:

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.

I’m intrigued by this trap of bigness and have been for a long time, but until I read Bernbach’s letter, I didn’t have a name for it.

It’s something I see everywhere. In fact, I can’t help but feel – without having delved into the history too deeply, I must admit – that what he’s talking about is even more pertinent now than it was 70 years ago.

Today, we’re surrounded by organisations who have not only fallen into the trap of bigness, but who revel in it. The majority are once-great companies, founded on a brilliant range of products, remarkable new technology, a distinctive and inspiring philosophy or all of the above. But bigness has calcified their creative arteries.

They no longer trade on superior engineering, beautiful design or anything resembling distinctiveness; they trade on a name. It’s a name, they assure us, that is “synonymous” with “style” or “innovation” or “quality”. But the facts say otherwise.

I always come back to the clothing industry when I consider this subject (and I’ll write about clothes brands in more detail on another day). You can’t on the one hand talk about your brand having a “passion” for the “very best materials “and the “finest standards in manufacturing”, and on the other concede that you have no idea who makes your clothes and under what conditions, or where the raw materials come from.

The two assertions are mutually exclusive.

This is what I mean when I talk about reveling in the bigness trap. Bill Bernbach describes it as “worshiping a ritual instead of the God”. Certain companies have become so large that they’ve turned their attention almost exclusively to the mechanics of remaining big. The product, service or idea that allowed them to grow in the first place has become, at best, a minor cog in the machinery. At worst – as in the case of some huge clothing manufacturers – it has become an inconvenience.

Of course, Bernbach wasn’t talking about garments. He was talking about advertising. And he wasn’t talking about the quality of a product, but the skill of writers and artists. His letter goes on to lament the fact that in the ad world, bigness cultivates “technicians… routinized men who have a formula for advertising”.

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 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.

The formulaic, the routinised, the innocuous are the fuels that keep bigness chugging along.

You might get to big by scoffing at the status quo and upending conventional wisdom, but you stay there by keeping the machine running steadily – doing the same thing over and over again because you know it works. In other words, you maintain your position by doing the opposite of what it was that allowed you to reach it.

Bernbach saw a flaw in this thinking:

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.

That surely goes for any organisation, not just an advertising business.

Letters of Note suggests that Bernbach left Grey a mere two years after penning the memo “with his advice largely ignored”. I think the call to distinctiveness would have been ignored by many companies today, as well. But not just the big ones.

I started The Ink Bureau for all sorts of reasons, but chief among them was something I noticed as soon as I started out in copywriting, and which hasn’t changed since. If anything, in fact, it’s become more pronounced. I noticed it in organisations of all different sizes and complexions, some of which I admired and even worked for. I noticed it on websites, in advertisements and coming from the mouths of very senior people. It was exactly what Bernbach was railing against: a desire to be the same as everyone else via the medium of the written word.

I noticed the same words and phrases used over and over again. They had no special connection with a particular sector or industry, so they could be used universally. They were convenient, I’ll give them that. But they were irrelevant, boring and often embarrassingly free of meaning.

I couldn’t understand it. Why would you invest so much time, energy and heartache into creating an exceptional enterprise and then use language to express just how unexceptional it was?

So I decided to offer a service that refuses to give people copy using language from this barren vocabulary. Not a service of numbers and formulas, but, borrowing from Bernbach’s philosophy, of creativity and persuasion:

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 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.

The people who fundamentally disagree simply won’t use The Ink Bureau. And that’s fine.

Technicians will out-talk me. And that’s fine too.

But if I succeed, it won’t be because I’ve erred on the side of circumspection.

The safe option, to me, is avoiding the trap of bigness.

Read Bill Bernbach’s letter in full.

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