I love tech. Most of my clients are launching or growing the next generation of wizardry that will make the world a better, more facile, happier place. My job is to tell audiences exactly what it is my tech clients are doing, and why that’s worthwhile, in language simple enough for all to understand.

Being up to my eyeballs in tech, I’m exposed daily to an inundation of data-driven marketing. It truly is amazing that I can track the success of any piece of advertising down to the verb. I can tell you who’s clicking, who’s buying, when, where, how much, and even why. To a creative director who has spent much of his career guided by the crude tools of 20th-century research (focus groups and shopper intercepts, for anyone who wants an unpleasant blast from the past), data-driven marketing is a great leap forward.

Except that it isn’t.

Deep in my core, I believe that the art of persuasion is being lost in the rush forward. The pendulum is swinging hard in the direction of technique, away from art. Content is filler that drives people, like lab rats,  through the funnel to the orange buy button. Where’s the fun in that, for ad consumers and ad creators?

Of course, we’ve been here before. As revolutionary as this all feels, the uneasy balance of technology and art in commerce is as old as the hills.

As revolutionary as data-driven marketing feels, the tension between tech and art is as old as the hills.

Last night, I cracked open an amazing book called ‘The Real Mad Men’ by Andrew Cracknell, one of the best copywriters ever to have graced the business. The book launches with a letter from ad legend, founder of DDB Advertising and the primary driver of the Creative Revolution in 20th-century advertising, Bill Bernbach.

This letter, written by Bernbach to his bosses at Grey Advertising in 1947, bemoans the fact that the business of persuasion is losing its soul – and its power – because it’s being driven by ‘technicians’. Turns out, this letter had the same impact on his bosses as most great office memos have – zero. Luckily for all of us, Bill Bernbach took Grey’s lack of action as an impetus to start his own agency.

I wanted to reprint Bill Bernbach’s letter here, as a reminder to all of us enthralled by the power of tech in marketing, that we should step carefully, lest we trample one of the most powerful tools in our arsenal…art.

Without further ado, here’s Bill Bernbach’s letter:

May 15, 1947 –

Our agency is getting big. That’s something to be happy about. But it’s something to worry about, too, and I don’t mind telling you I’m damn worried. I’m worried that we’re going to fall into the trap of bigness, that we’re going to worship techniques instead of substance, that we’re going to follow history instead of making it, that we’re going to be drowned by superficialities instead of buoyed up by solid fundamentals. I’m worried lest hardening of the creative arteries begins to set in.

I’m worried that we’re going to worship techniques instead of substance…that we’re going to be drowned by superficialities…

There are a lot of great technicians in advertising. And unfortunately, they talk the best game. They know all the rules. They can tell you that people in an ad will get you the greater readership. They can tell you that a sentence should be this sort or that long. They can tell you that body copy should be broken up for easier reading. 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.

Advertising is fundamentally persuasion and persuasion happens to be not a science, but an art.

It’s that creative spark that I’m so jealous of for our agency and that I am so desperately fearful of losing. I don’t want academicians. I don’t want scientists. I don’t want people who do the right things. I want people who do inspiring things.

In the past year I must have interviewed about eighty people – writers and artists. Many of them were from the so-called giants of the agency field. It was appalling to see how few of these people were genuinely creative. Sure, they had advertising know-how. Yes, they were up on advertising technique.

But look beneath the technique and what did you find? A sameness, a mental weariness, a mediocrity of ideas. But they could defend every ad on the basis that it obeyed the rules of advertising. It was like worshiping a ritual instead of the God. 

…look beneath the technique and what did you find? A sameness…a mediocrity of ideas. It was like worshiping a ritual instead of the God.

All this is not to say that technique is unimportant. Superior technical skill will make a good man better. But 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 routinized men who have a formula for advertising. The danger lies int he natural tendency to go after tried-and-true talent that will not make us stand out in competition but rather make us look like all the others.

Let us blaze new trails. Let us prove to the world that good taste, good art, and good writing can be good selling.

If we are to advance, we must emerge as a distinctive personality. We must develop our own philosophy and not have the advertising philosophy of others imposed on us.

Let us blaze new trails. Let us prove to the world that good taste, good art, and good writing can be good selling.

Respectfully,

Bill Bernbach 

As a brand strategy expert, successful entrepreneur, and award-winning author, Marc Stoiber uses simplicity and creativity to help people discover what’s awesome about their business… and then helps them tell the world. For more on creating your company’s value proposition, connect with Marc on FacebookTwitter, and LinkedIn, and sign up to his monthly newsletter.  

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