A major issue around advertising and marketing nowadays is that there is a drive to “learn and perfect” it. And this is resulting in less actual creativity being used.

Apparently this has been an issue going all the way back to the start of the advertising age, two years after World War 2 in 1947.

In that year, William “Bill” Bernach was the Creative Director at Grey Advertising, before leaving to become one of the founders of DDB. However, in this infamous letter to the leadership of Grey he pointed out a disturbing trend of advertising becoming filled with people who knew all the theory and techniques, but little about true creativity and coming up with risky ideas.

Here is a reprint of the 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

[sic] 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 routinised [sic] 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.


Bill Bernbach

What is ironic is that now, almost 70 years later, many of the issues he highlighted still ring true, and in some cases have gotten worse. This is because in 2016, the use of digital advertising has meant that a lot more emphasis is placed on testing every possible variable of an advert to see how it affects the performance of ads and copy.

Marketers and advertisers are being taught the “tricks” that improve ad conversions, such as:

  • What colour should your call to action button be? Tests show that orange outperforms green by 12.34%
  • How many words should be in your headline?
  • How many letters should be in your subheadline?
  • Which emotional trigger is most likely to cause a housewife to take action when considering hair colorant (fear, anger, joy, anguish…)

And with split testing, advertisers can further refine their ads by testing hundreds of variations to find the ones which perform best. All of these are technical skills for advertising which can be taught. The promise of a system or a formula.

But what is lacking is the desire to try something which is harder to test. The ideas which are so far away from what has worked before that there is no precedent to say “based on our data that should work”. The true creativity in the industry which considers that it’s main value driver.

So have another look at the message which Bill Bernbach states. In your own company, are you blazing a new trail?

You should be.

(full size image of the original letter below. You can share it by hovering over it)

1947 creativity letter full

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Creativity & Innovation expert: I help individuals and companies build their creativity and innovation capabilities, so you can develop the next breakthrough idea which customers love. Chief Editor of Ideatovalue.com and Founder / CEO of Improvides Innovation Consulting. Coach / Speaker / Author / TEDx Speaker / Voted as one of the most influential innovation bloggers.