An unemployed copywriter in search of a job walked into his interview at the William Weintraub agency in Manhattan in 1941. His method for creating advertising was the same as all writers before him; he came up with some copy and then passed it down to the layout department where a bullpen of artists would whip up some “roughs” or “pastels.” The writer? Bill Bernbach.
Key words: passed down. Design critic Ralph Caplan called designers "the exotic menials." Writers and designers worked in separate rooms, on separate floors. This was the model of the advertising world before television. When posters represented much of our visual communications.
But not at Weintraub. Weintraub appointed a young, promising designer as Head of Art: Paul Rand. Rand, who had already received international recognition for his designs with Esquire and Direction, worked with Bernbach for a few years. Rand was expanding the edges of traditional American advertising by making ads that were quirky, witty, and visually memorable. Rand didn’t treat ads as a thing to be designed; he saw them as whole ideas themselves.
Through Rand's tutelage and friendship, Bernbach’s love for language became fused with a deeper appreciation for design and the overall creative process. They visited museums and art galleries together, and Rand would point out the ways images paired with words would work.
“This was my first encounter with a copywriter who understood visual ideas,” Rand recalled, “and who didn't come in with a yellow copy pad and a preconceived notion of what the layout should look like.”
The famous art director George Lois, who knew Rand and Bernbach very well, recalls:
“The seed for advertising’s Creative Revolution was planted when Bernbach met Rand at the Weintraub agency. Here was an art director who not only wrote and designed his own ads—he also didn’t take any shit from anybody. Meeting Rand, Bernbach had an epiphany about the whole creative process. He realized that advertising could be ten times better if a talented writer works with a talented art director.”
From this seed sprouted a new model for agencies. Rand and Bernbach’s collaborative spirit inspired the concept of the “creative team,” and it changed the industry forever.
The way in which ideas were generated in earlier days would be perplexing today. The creative department had little control. It was the accounts people who told copywriters what to do. Suits … telling artists … what to do? Can you imagine? That wouldn’t fly today. Then copywriters “passed down” their work to the art department. It was rare for designers and writers to know each other.
Prior to the creative team approach, many ad agencies’ mastheads showcased the copywriters’ names only: David Ogilvy, Leo Burnett, Raymond Rubicam. And then in the 1950s and ‘60s, it became about the art director and copywriter combo, like Ammirati & Puris, McCann Erickson, and the agency that Bill Bernach would start in 1949 with Ned Doyle and Maxwell Dane, DDB.
Under Bernbach’s high standards and creative leadership that united design and language to tell stories, DDB became a giant in the industry, producing ads that are still talked about today, from Polaroid to Alka-Seltzer to Volkswagen.
He proved that commercial creativity didn’t need to sacrifice beauty, wit, and grace to be effective. Advertising and design worked much better when they embraced these qualities. When it strived to be relentlessly unboring. Quirky. Imaginative. Powerful.
As Allen Hurlburt mentioned about Rand: “He demonstrated the importance of the art director in advertising and helped break the isolation that once surrounded the art department. He played a key role in establishing the art and copy team as the base for the advertising concept. But perhaps his overriding contribution was the inspiration that his brilliant approach to design brought to a generation of future advertising art directors.
An even more significant contribution was his sense of responsibility to the reader and his emphasis on quality and good taste. Today this contribution may be more honored in the breach than in the observance in many agencies, but scores of responsible art directors around the world continue to demonstrate that the Rand influence was considerably more than a brief moment of an advertising Camelot.”
Has anything changed?
Modern design legend Michael Bierut wrote in 2006 about the persistence of the exotic menial, challenging whether the role of a designer is any different 25 years after Ralph Caplan coined the term.
Bierut nailed it when he said, “Yearning for the spotlight — respect from the business community and attention from the general public — has been a ceaseless, all-consuming theme of ambitious designers for the last quarter-century, and maybe long before that.”
Digital applications and the internet expanded the world of design with product design and UX design, and pushed the possibilities of graphic design and branding. Beyond the poster as a core piece of visual communication, the shape had morphed into squares and rectangles across the internet, walking side-by-side with a new gatekeeper that had the keys to audiences. More than just print and television, designers had a new pixelated playground where they could use graphics, animation, illustration, motion, photography, typography, layouts, colors, etc.
And because of this shift, designers got a seat at the table.
Look at it this way to understand how far the “arts” or “creative people” have come: If you started as a designer in the early boom of the internet and worked in the right places, today you could be making the salary of a heart surgeon as an executive or leader of a company. Not because what you’re doing is better or more important than a heart surgeon; it’s because the marketplace and the money flowing into tech allows for people to make that kind of money.
I think if Rand and Bernbach were to see the inner workings of an agency today, they would grin from ear to ear. It's not just the art director and copywriter. A good agency will have many of the right people involved, including the client side because these days it takes many talented people and ideas to make great work.
The desire for a spotlight hasn’t gone away. From dozens of award shows to Cannes, from marketers pretending to be designers to the Harvard Business types yapping about “design thinking” as if they understand design at all, it is a reality. Being in the spotlight gets you noticed, and being noticed sometimes gets you those fancy titles and big salaries because decision-makers are mesmerized by sparkly status, and getting those things, well, is good for your bottom line.
From handing off to working in harmony
For an organization to refresh itself and renew its relevance in the marketplace — to win — they can’t blast out print and TV ads anymore. If you created something worth talking about in the ‘50s and ‘60s — think: the Volkswagen print ad — it could turn a company around and generate what felt like an overnight success. You were talked about.
I saw this firsthand when interviewing a few leaders at The Exploratorium with my former colleague Karin Fyhrie when we worked together at COLLINS.
Here was an organization that had decades of rich history in pioneering science education. Incredible projects and endeavors that reached millions of curious learners. But to many people, it was just a physical space — not an institution at the forefront.
Former Creative Director, Lara McCormick, and Head of Marketing, Julie Nunn, shared how the updated brand strategy, improved design system, and experience working with an agency helped the teams at The Exploratorium behave differently to serve their in-person and online audiences cohesively.
“It used to be that marketing was making the decisions, then dropping it off to museum experience/exhibition design teams to execute. But now we’re all in the room together. My team gets to inform what our agency should be delivering, whereas before that didn’t happen. We’re all now solving complex problems, not just delivering something that looks pretty,” Lara said.
“We get involved with the big campaigns at some point. But it’s more about setting it up for success and with a process that is not negotiable. It’s a process that we all buy into and it’s based on trust and it’s based on very clear decision-making lines,” Julie said. “I make sure when the agency work is delivered to internal creative stakeholders (web, graphics and editorial). I give them space to work with the system. My job is to make sure the essence and the integrity of the campaign remain intact.”
This level of cooperation and collaboration is, of course, not common or easy to maintain. It is a constant moving target that is informed by many influences, like leadership, talent, and goals. It is very possible to achieve it. The practice of refreshing a brand is a unifier. And it’s good for business.
The strangeness of today
Bill Bernbach said, “An idea can turn to dust or magic depending on the talent that rubs against it.”
Looking at the history of creative teams that started with Bernbach and Rand, it makes me wonder: When is the next creative revolution coming? Where will it begin?
Because advertising's reign and influence on the concept of creative teams — and the use of 'creativity' in business — it informs the DNA of teams today.
Here's where things get strange.
Throughout my career, I've studied a pattern of people in advertising rebranding themselves as the industry at large began to lose relevance. Some went as far as calling themselves designers, though they've never designed anything other than a deck. The screenshot above is a perfect example of a damaging trend happening quietly. A creative director ought to be managing designers, because that person had years, if not decades, of making work for various clients. They understand business needs, how to speak to executives, the moving parts of a project, and manage teams of talent.
Advertising, like design, had a new world to play in because of the internet. With Google Ads, blogs, and eventually social media, advertisers had a window of time to prove that advertising on the internet worked. So, they rebranded themselves as digital marketers, SEO, and content producers.
What advertisers/marketers do is the same: try to get the word out about the company.
How they do it is rooted in tactics. The SEO expert wants you to be found on the first page of Google. The Facebook consultant wants to run the sexiest ads. The PR pro promises your name in the biggest publications. The content marketer knows how to get people to read and click and buy. The old-school ad guys will write you a Super Bowl spot because they've won at Cannes.
While some of those levers can be fruitful, companies building digital apps and products have to learn to behave differently. Once they have the formula down for how much money is spent on ads and its ROI, it goes on autopilot. Yet, so much of marketing is ignorable these days. They spam people and produce jargon-filled campaigns and ads. They try to be funny without reading the room. They speak in acronyms and military language like they're war generals.
I started my career in a tech startup, worked in non-profits, an agency, and events, and consulted with many other startups. Tech is a world ripe for reinvention. The make-up of teams is why good ideas die. And I believe they will make up most of the companies that exist in the future.
Much of the common frustrations are bloated teams, clueless executives (bad hires), difficulty designing a culture as they double or triple their headcount in alarmingly short timeframes, and most recently, bad behavior going public.
Learning to work in tech is a skill in itself that no book or school can prepare you for. There is so much money flowing in this industry, the moat of security allows for a ruthless practice of wasting people’s time and talent. There are too many “bullshit jobs.” I read somewhere that all companies are just “loosely functioning disasters,” which are the truest words I’ve read in a very long time.
Many companies hurt themselves because of poor decisions like giving people meaningless titles, over-hiring managers, and not hiring enough makers. These decisions erode culture. And reversing those poor decisions is a long, messy process.
All you need is someone who can manage talent and taste, and let the independent contributors — the artists, writers, designers, poets, filmmakers, illustrators, editors, etc. — generate a ton of ideas. Make things that people can interact with, talk about, learn from, or share with friends.
I keep thinking about what the writer said about Paul Rand's role as a designer, "having a responsibility to the reader and his emphasis on quality and good taste."
Does that even come up in your meetings? Who's responsible?
Talk to anyone about this in this space, and they’ll agree. They see the problem. They feel it or have felt it. What gets in the way of great work is bureaucracy, rationalization of these different departments and job title tiers, and the bad hires that are given too much power.
It makes me think of this timeless quote from Buckminster Fuller: