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Back to the Classics: Bernbach as a Creative Director

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One of the most important contributions legendary ad man Bill Bernbach made to the industry was to define what it meant to be a true creative director.

Before Bernbach, the advertising agency creative director was a useless paper pusher, a management stooge whose job it was to keep copywriters and art directors from getting out of hand … or getting too near clients.

As you can imagine, Bernbach tore down this inert system and began to actually direct DDB’s creative. He frequently prowled the creative floor and dropped in on copywriter/art director teams who were struggling with difficult projects, asking questions and recommending directions that led them to ingenious new solutions.

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Bernbach acted as a cheerleader and teacher, not a boss or manager. His office had no desk for him to sit behind in judgment, just a round table with chairs signifying that he and his staff were equals, working together to create the best work. He also kept research and account people far from his department as it developed ideas, realizing they could unnecessarily edit the creative process at a crucial point.

Sadly, Bill Bernbach’s most crucial strategy as a creative director is not widely practiced today — refusing to inject his own personal creative concepts into the situation. He knew that asking creative teams for ideas, then rejecting them and using his own, was poison for morale. As usual, he said it best:

“Early on, I used to visit creative teams … and tended to get headlines for them. Well, I learned very quickly not to do that. The work has got to be their property. I can’t have skin in the game.”  Bill Bernbach –

Column written by Mark Carpenter, AAF Omaha Board Member & Co-Chair Nebraska ADDYs Committee

AAF Omaha