Copyranter: Advertising is not a science. It never will be

Mark Duffy has written the Copyranter blog for 10 years and is a freelancing copywriter with 20-plus years of experience. His hockey wrist shot is better than yours.

In 1947, creative director Bill Bernbach wrote a resignation letter to ad agency Grey New York. Two years later, Bernbach started his own agency, which started the advertising creative revolution that transformed the industry. And, as Bernbach predicted, Grey went on to become a hacky data-driven sweatshop — much like your digital/tech agency, only bigger. You should read the letter.

Wait. What can tech gurus learn from a 68-year-old typewritten letter by a man who died in 1982, without ever using a computer, even once?

First some brief background info for those not familiar with Bernbach or the work DDB did in the 1950s-1960s. The creative department he molded produced ad campaigns directly responsible for VW, Avis and American Airlines (among others) growing into the huge corporations they are today. Yes, they created great ads, the best ads in the world at the time. But the ads also sold magnificently.


Bernbach despised the “technicians” of advertising. If you’re the TL;DR type of techie, just read this sentence, out loud, at your desk:

Advertising is not a science.

Read it again, out loud. Now, go to the nearest conference room white board and write it 100 times, in red ink. Then, take a photo of the board and mass email it to all your contacts. After that, go ahead and order your headstone and make it your epitaph. Don’t worry it’ll still be true 100 years from now.

Still refuse to read the letter? OK, I’ll pull out the tidbits that directly apply to you and your ilk.

There are a lot great technicians in advertising. And unfortunately they talk the best game. … 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.”

Do you get what he’s saying? Ads are not art, but creating good ads is.

…look beneath the technique and what do you find? A sameness, a mental weariness, a mediocrity of ideas. … It [is] like worshipping a ritual instead of the God.”

Ritual worshipping — a perfect description of ad tech, and even of native advertising.

“[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 men who have a formula for advertising … that will not make us stand out in competition but rather make us look like all the others.”

Not all ad techies are as “routinised” as you. James Britton, managing director of StinkDigital (a digital/tech agency) gets it: “If you notice the technology first, truth is, the idea probably isn’t good enough.”

Ain’t no “probably” about it: Content isn’t king, and data isn’t queen. The idea is king. And it isn’t married to any technology.

But you optimizing, programmatic geniuses, let me know when you create a bot that can create better ads than a good human creative.


Banner image courtesy of Allen.G /

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