BY Matt Williams
The word legend is overused in most industries, and advertising is no different.
But John Bernbach really is an advertising legend. Son of Bill Bernbach the B in DDB, John has spent more than 40 years working in the industry, including eight as the president and COO of DDB Needham Worldwide. He was also among those responsible for creating the Omnicom Group, and ran some of the largest and most iconic accounts out there, including Volkswagen, Audi, Avis, Anheuser Busch and IBM.
Today, John is chief operating officer of Engine USA, working alongside fellow advertising luminary Martin Puris. But at 67, what exactly is it that still inspires him to come to work every morning with a spring in his step? And why is he more excited about the industry than ever before?
You've been overseeing some of the worlds top agencies for a number of years now, what advice would you give to those managing agencies today in this climate?
JB: Because we're going through rough economic times right now, there seems to be in most businesses an emphasis on the bottom line, and thats a tough thing as it just makes companies focus on survival. But management teams have to make aware to employees that there's more to this business than that. You see wonderful people making tremendous contributions to this industry, and that still happens. The problem is just that there's not as much patience as there used to be, but there has to be patience when youre learning new businesses and trying to inspire and nurture young people.
And what is it that inspires you?
The exciting part of the business, particularly for someone of my age, is that its very exciting for me to be surrounded by young people who are full of enthusiasm and full of energy. These are the ones who have open minds - they haven't all gone through the same education systems or the same training programmes as everyone used to. They're so much more knowledgeable than we were when we were that age. Its a very exciting time for those people to be getting into advertising and I find it very exciting to associate with this new generation.
You've managed to successfully hold long-term relationships with some of the biggest clients out there - what's the secret?
I've been very lucky in being blessed with creative clients. And that's a big thing. One example stands out: I had two terrific creative directors who would take work to one client in particular and I remember one of them saying to me one day: I've never taken a piece of work into him and the work coming out of the meeting being worse than it was at the start. Most creative people moan that the client screwed their idea up, but here was always the opposite. I'd say that one of the things that has changed most dramatically in the industry is the relationships between agencies and their brands. I got into the business in 1967 and when I eventually got into positions of authority - whether that was as a young account guy or head of an office or head of a region or eventually as head of the largest agency in the world - I had relationships with the CEOs of our clients, where these guys wouldnt wipe their noses without asking us for permission. Its an overused word but they really were partnerships.
Carl Hahn from Volkswagen, who is now 85 years old and who I still keep in touch with even today, and Tony O'Reilly from Heinz, these are people who really put more value on their agencies than many do today. They recognise the contributions that their agencies make, and they recognise that these agencies are the public faces of their companies, which reflects on them.
Why has that changed?
I cant speak for the UK, but one of my favourite pet theories that I get beaten up for all the time in the States is that we went through a period of time in the US - which really started in the 1970s - where people in the marketing world put more and more reliance on MBAs. And that led to an assumption that because you've studied in certain places and in certain ways that you had an answer for everything. But that made everything become more formulaic, and removed those visionaries and pushed creativity further down the line. To this day I have best friends who were my clients. The best man at my wedding was a client. They were relationships that are built on mutual trust, mutual affection and respect. I just dont see that as much anymore. Every once in a while you get a top flight CMO who respects the agencies and treats them as partners, and recognizes that these guys and girls are shedding blood for them, but the majority of clients, at least in America, are not like that, and they've allowed the agencies to fall into the trap where they just become another vendor, another supplier.
How do you view the future of agencies then?
One of the best things thats happening in the industry, and I think it's because of the digital world, is that you're now getting some of the brighter kids that are coming out of university wanting to get into the business. For the past few decades everyone has had their eyes on the money, wanting to become a trader or go to Wall Street. But were finally beginning to see those people looking at the creative industries. Martin Puris tells a very funny story that when he once gave a speech to a business school audience in Chicago, he asked at the beginning of his speech who in the audience wanted to go into the advertising business. No-one raised their hand. He said: "come on there must be somebody here?" Eventually one girl raised her hand, and when she was asked why, she admitted that it was because her father owned an agency. But now because media has changed so much - because everyone respects media a lot more and now that almost everything can be viewed as a medium - people want to get into this business and be a part of it, and thats very exciting.