Peter Hubbell, CEO of BoomAgers, recently proposed that a new award be established at the Cannes International Festival of Creativity, to honor innovative contributions by older members of the industry. Hubbell suggested that the award be called the Ageless Lion. Unlike Hubbell, I am not a member of the advertising industry, and in fact I have only ever met one advertising executive. So it is not for me to make recommendations to the Cannes Festival. My only part is to say that awards of this kind are too rare in all domains in our society, and to add that if such an award is established, at Cannes or elsewhere, it might be named in honor of a great experimental advertising executive, who made remarkable contributions to his industry during his 50s.
William Bernbach (1911-1982) was one of the three founders of Doyle Dane Bernbach. During the 1950s and '60s, he headed a series of advertising campaigns that effectively created an experimental revolution in that industry. His trademark campaigns were based not on pyrotechnics or hyperbole, but instead on values that characterize experimental creativity in many other domains: they were visual, understated, simple, and clear. Like great experimental innovators in art and literature, Bernbach believed in honesty. In advertising, this meant you should sell things you believed in, with representations that were accurate.
Bernbach created or sponsored a number of successful campaigns. Probably the most famous of these was for the rental car company Avis. In 1962, Bernbach created a campaign that made a virtue of Avis' underdog position in the industry, with what became one of the most widely recognized tag lines in all of advertising: We Try Harder. In a society that regarded anything other than first place as losing, it suddenly became chic to be only No. 2.
Like many experimental innovators, Bill Bernbach was himself understated: he took his work seriously, but he let it speak for itself, and was modest and unassuming in person. This common feature of experimental innovators often leads to their work being overlooked or unappreciated. In today's age of rhetorical bombast and outright dishonesty, it would make an attractive contribution to our public discourse to honor achievement by experimental late bloomers in memory of a genuine old master of advertising who succeeded through the skillful use of simplicity and honesty.