Return To Main PageCOMMANDO LOGO

8/27/99 -The Bernbach Curse

In a business where superstardom rarely lasts longer than the run of a hot campaign, Bill Bernbach is the real deal. In fact, he's an advertising deity. Besides being the creative leader of the postwar period's most influential agency, Bernbach is remembered for popularizing the art director/copywriter creative team.

According to ad lore, before Bernbach's team concept, writers anonymously slid their copy under the door of the art department for visual enhancement.

Certainly, the AD/CW creative team was an idea whose time had come in a world making the sensory shift from radio to living color TV. This new partnership helped advertising evolve from rational, hard sell copy to take advantage of the new medium's potential for nonverbal, emotional persuasion.

When Bernbach instituted The Team, no generation had grown up with television, let alone reached the level of visual sophistication of today's MTVified creatives. Back then, the disciplines of copy and art could be neatly pigeonholed.

Well, today the pigeons have flown the coop. Over the past 50 years, the abilities of the people creating advertising have grown beyond simple categorization. Yet, the constricting concept of the AD/CW team persists.

Bernbach, who believed "rules are prisons," has posthumously confined the ad industry with one of his own. The AD/CW creative team is now dogma, mindlessly followed by even the most hack agencies.

This once liberating concept has become The Bernbach Curse.

It haunts creative departments everywhere, spooking them from taking the next logical step in the integration of art and copy--fusing the team into a single converged creative person.

While Bernbach got the two disciplines to work in the same room, it's now time to officially get them into the same body.

An overlap of talents has always existed, with copywriters suggesting visuals and art directors writing headlines. However, in the past decade, desktop computers have become a creative common ground, bridging the old gap between drawing boards and typewriters.

The creative team is now digitally united on file servers. The only barriers to them becoming individually self-sufficient cybercreatives™ are a few software programs and agency policy.

Creatives are said to be right brained thinkers, so why must their brains be further subdivided into art/copy partitions? They're treated as if each partner is suffering from a sensory loss that must be compensated for by the other.

It's sort of like the movie "See No Evil, Hear No Evil," where a blind man (Richard Pryor) and a deaf man (Gene Wilder) team up to solve a crime. Except in this case, the crime is that creatives must handicap their talents to work within the system.

Strangely enough, when copywriters and art directors are promoted, their distinctions are dropped and they're identified as simply creative -- associate creative director, creative director, group creative director, executive creative director and (if they're lucky) worldwide creative director.

Along with the new title, they're suddenly deemed to be equally skilled in both art direction and copywriting. So why not eliminate the copywriter/art director tag at the entry level and just call them creatives? Why inhibit their contributions with narrow, obsolete job descriptions?

Does the AD/CW duality exist to give middle management more people to manage? Or to provide a room full of warm bodies to impress clients? Whatever the reason, it's time ad agencies exorcised The Bernbach Curse.

Of course, to successfully do so, everything that perpetuates the copywriter/art director schism--from ad schools to headhunters--would have to change as well.

This consolidation of talents shouldn't be seen as anti-teamwork. Collaboration from conception through execution is the key to creating effective communications. Rather, this is a call for creative empowerment. A broadening of job functions that would acknowledge technological reality and, in turn, multiply an agency's creative resources.

Bill Bernbach said, "To keep your ads fresh, you've got to keep yourself fresh. Live in the current idiom and you will create in it." Today, that means creating digitally. And if Bernbach was still around, he'd be doing just that. With both words and pictures.

That's why, of all the dead creative geniuses exploited to endorse Apple computers they never used, Bernbach's ad seems the most credible. Just as he had done 50 years ago, this visionary would be championing a new way for advertising agencies to think different.