In one episode of the television series “Mad Men,” there’s a verse about nostalgia. “Nostalgia literally means the pain from an old wound. It’s a twinge in your heart, far more powerful than memory alone.” That’s not quite accurate, but in the world of book publishing, reminiscing and nostalgia often lead to tearing down commonly held “truths” about the past until all the flaws are laid bare. And while Bill Bernbach, deceased founder of the Doyle Dane Bernbach Agency, was hailed as a trailblazer in the advertising world, a new book about him is more about tearing him down.
Bernbach famously said, “Rules are what the artist breaks; the memorable never emerged from a formula.” But author Doris Willens contends that rather than being the creative genius, he capitalized on other people’s creativity. Bernbach is recognized as the one who merged art and copy, advocating that advertising deserves respect as an art form. But Willens in her book, “Nobody’s Perfect: Bill Bernbach and the Golden Age of Advertising,” portrays him as a stodgy, boring man who dressed conservatively and ate only at familiar restaurants.
Could such a person truly have a creative bent? Others who knew Bernbach contend that he was more of an ideas person than a brass tacks type, and that was just fine with them. He led the agency to carve new ground in advertising and had a hand in changing the very nature of advertising. Like the characters in “Mad Men,” he was flawed but not extremely so. His genius was in seeing the bigger picture and leading the team. Disney didn’t have to be the best animator. It was his vision that mattered. And so the discussion goes.
This begs the question of whether creativity is in the details or in the bigger picture. Is it more important to originate the idea for say, a Volkswagen ad or create the words and images? Can creativity be sustained in business without overall direction and leadership? Is autonomy better than teamwork? And doesn’t it take a village to do most things in our mad world?