A Talk With Ogilvy, Bernbach, Burnett And Reeves

Derrick DayeMarch 26, 20093 min

David Ogilvy, Bill Bernbach, Leo Burnett and Rosser Reeves left indelible marks on the advertising landscape. Their works influenced generations of consumers and marketers. Today on BSI – a virtual interview constructed with some of their most significant thoughts on the business and where it is headed.

What is at the core of advertising?

Bill Bernbach: “The magic is in the product… No matter how skillful you are, you can’t invent a product advantage that doesn’t exist. And if you do, and it’s just a gimmick, it’s going to fall apart anyway.”

Rosser Reeves: “The writer must make the product itself interesting. Otherwise, a great part of his ingenuity and inventiveness will be used in devising tricks which lower the efficiency of advertising, rather than raising it.”

David Ogilvy: “If you spend your advertising budget entertaining the consumer, you’re a bloody fool. Housewives don’t buy a new detergent because the manufacturer told a joke on television…They buy the new detergent because it promises a benefit.”

Leo Burnett: The greatest thing to be achieved in advertising, in my opinion, is believability, and nothing is more believable than the product itself. We want consumers to say, ‘That’s a hell of a product’ instead of, ‘That’s a hell of an ad.’

But isn’t the most important thing to break through the clutter?

Ogilvy: “When you write an ad, I don’t want you to tell me that you find it ‘creative.’ I want you to find it so persuasive that you buy the product.”

Burnett: “If you don’t get noticed, you don’t have anything. You just have to be noticed, but the art is in getting noticed naturally, without screaming or without tricks.”

Reeves: “Such [creatives] have a pseudo-rationale for this striving after mere ‘difference,’ and they plead it with passionate earnestness:

1) Advertising (not the product) must compete with a tremendous number of other advertising messages. 2) Therefore, the advertisement (not the product) must get attention.
3) Therefore, a given advertisement (not the product) must be different…It is a classical example of confusing the means with the ends.”

Bernbach: “Getting a product known isn’t the answer. Getting it wanted is the answer…Be sure your advertising is saying something…that will inform and serve the consumer, and…saying it like it’s never been said before.”

Bill, your creative revolution was, in many ways, a revolution against Rosser and his supporters. How do you define breakthrough creative?

Bernbach: “The creative person has harnessed his imagination. He has disciplined it so that every thought, every idea, every idea, every word he puts down, every line he draws, every light and shadow in every photograph he takes, makes more vivid, more believable, more persuasive the original theme or product advantage he has decided he must convey.”

David, Leo and Bill each of you were creatives. What does “creativity” mean to you?

Ogilvy: “I am supposed to be the No. 1 creative genius in the whole world, and I don’t even know what the hell the word ‘creativity’ means…But I’m not afraid to tell creative phonies that their commercials are utter nonsense.“

Burnett: “I have learned that any fool can write a bad ad, but that it takes a real genius to keep his hands off a good one.”

Bernbach: “Today everybody is talking ‘creativity,’ and, frankly, that’s got me worried…I fear all the sins we may commit in the name of ‘creativity.’ I fear that we may be entering an age of phonies.”

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  • C

    March 26, 2009 at 12:37 pm

    I would love to see the dates of their thoughts that you’ve used here. I’d bet that these thoughts are new and old and would show a very interesting observation about the timelessness of these ideas.

  • Derrick Daye

    March 26, 2009 at 1:07 pm


    It’s quite a range spanning several decades of the last century. I see your point – but I have to wonder if that information would take away from how we view their collective thoughts? It seems the more our world changes the relevancy of their thoughts grows.



  • C

    March 27, 2009 at 9:28 am

    Just for my take, I tend to give more weight to opinions that have stood the test of time.

    I once bought a 1923 version of Emily Posts’ “Etiquette,” and I was truly blown away that many of the issues she was writing about as the “new topics” were some of the same “new topics” we were facing socially in 1994. Her responses then were very useful suggestions for dealing with those same issues today. Seemed to me that if the idea could last that long and still be applicable, it was a good one indeed.

    Similarly here, to see that some of these quotes, which may have been uttered many years ago, address squarely today some of the “new issues” we are facing would add more validity to me.

    I admit, that’s just me – sample of .5 since I’m bias.

    I certainly respect your position and will probably just have to go look them up myself someday 😉


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