This is the transcript of a séance conducted by Dave Bedwood and Sam Ball, Creative Partners, Lean Mean Fighting Machine and first featured in Digital Advertising: Past, Present, and Future.

What Would Bill Bernbach Think?

Séance transcript

19:30, 6 March 2010, Kings Cross, London

Present: Dave Bedwood, Sam Ball, Marie Baresford

Objective: To contact and seek the wisdom of Bill Bernbach, father of modern advertising, who died in 1982. Has the internet fundamentally changed the principles of advertising? If he were alive today, how would he approach digital advertising?

Marie Baresford: (slowly) Is there anybody there?


Marie Baresford: Is there anybody there?

Colonel Sanders: Hello, I’m Colonel Sanders. Who is this?

Marie Baresford: Is anybody else there?

Bill Bernbach: Hello, Bill Bernbach here. Who am I speaking to?

Sam Ball: (slightly startled) God, hello Mr Bernbach. My name is Sam Ball, and I’m here with Dave Bedwood. We’re the creative partners of a digital advertising agency called Lean Mean Fighting Machine.

Bill Bernbach: What an absurdly stupid name, and what on Earth is digital advertising?

Sam Ball: I won’t begin to explain the name, but we work in the world of advertising. Most of our adverts appear on the internet. Just to bring you up to speed, Bill, the internet is a huge connection of computers that spans the entire globe, enabling people to communicate, find out information, share photos, films, thoughts – all in an instant, anywhere in the world, without taking up any space or costing much money. Because people are spending so much time using their computers to do these things, advertisers now have another medium through which to talk to people.

Bill Bernbach: Have I been gone that long?

Dave Bedwood: Bill, we’ve got so many questions about life, death, God, the Universe… but seeing as we might not have much time, the most important thing we’d like to ask your opinion on is digital advertising. Do you think we need to rewrite the rule book since the advent of the internet?

(long silence, in which everyone in the room opens one eye)

Marie Beresford: Hello, Bill – could you respond? I know you’re still here.

Bill Bernbach: Sorry, I was just looking at an old book of my quotes. Well, it doesn’t sound to me like you need to rewrite the rules; rather, brands need to go back to the core creative philosophies. I remember the advent of TV. We were creating newspaper, poster, and radio ads at the time. The same conversations were ringing around the office: “Do we need to rethink how we go about doing great advertising? What is great advertising?”

Sam Ball: What were your conclusions?

Bill Bernbach: Let’s put this into perspective. In the early fifties, only 10 per cent of homes had TV sets. By the midsixties, this figure rose to 95 per cent. America was young and optimistic, and there were exciting times ahead. The problem was that the old guard in charge of the advertising industry didn’t know how to communicate with the new consumer effectively; they were still talking to people in a conventional way and treating them as idiots.

Sam Ball: Sorry to say, but some things haven’t changed.…

(long pause)

Bill Bernbach: Well, the great art director Helmut Krone had a good analogy about this kind of advertising. He likened it to being sold to by a man on your doorstep. If he shouted or treated you like you were an idiot or talked down to you, you naturally wouldn’t buy anything from him. We tried to write ads on the new medium of TV in a way that was thoughtful, treating consumers with respect and persuading them with charm and wit. The skills needed for that turned out to be no different than the ones we were employing with our best radio and press work. I would guess that these would be the same skills I would employ on your internet.

Dave Bedwood: I remember a quote you had from that time, about the fact that it took millions of years for man’s instincts to develop, so it will take millions more for them to vary. It’s fashionable to talk about changing man. A communicator must be concerned with unchanging man, with—

Bill Bernbach: (abruptly interrupting) His obsessive drive to survive, to be admired, to succeed, to love, to take care of his own.…

Dave Bedwood: Yes, sorry, they are your words.

Bill Bernbach: I still stick by that. Every era has the same problems. We had it with advancements in mass media like TV, but our philosophy was always to adapt your techniques to an idea, not an idea to your techniques. It looks like that might be even more important in your era.

Marie Beresford: Quite.

(Sam and Dave both open an eye and look at Marie and then each other.)

Dave Bedwood: (clears his throat) We feel that the internet is the next step in what you were trying to do, Bill. Essentially, your ads were trying to talk to people and create a dialogue on their terms, but what we have is the chance to actually have a dialogue. People can talk back and get involved. In the past, however successful your communications, it was always one way and passive. With our new technology, we can create work that goes beyond anything a passive medium like TV could offer.

Bill Bernbach: I take your point, and to a certain degree, I think you’re right. I would certainly see the internet as an extension of where I wanted to take advertising. We were trying to create a dialogue. Yes, TV, print, poster are essentially one way, but to counter your point, I do think some of our best ads achieve this: they leave a gap for the consumer to fill in. By working out an ad, the consumer is interacting with it. I do see the power available to you today through the use of technology, but I’d warn you against believing that the core principles of advertising are not relevant.

Sam Ball: It’s more that we think digital is different because the technology of the medium is so much more integral to how an idea can be expressed.

Bill Bernbach: But how you go about creating the right strategy, tone, insight, and message is exactly the same process if you wish to make a great TV ad or a great digital ad. How it is finally expressed differs because each medium gives a creative person different tools with which to paint the final picture.

Sam Ball: There is great debate at the moment as to who will own the future of advertising – the traditional agencies or the new digital agencies. What do you think about that?

Bill Bernbach: Well, at the heart of an effective creative philosophy is the belief that nothing is quite so powerful as an insight into human nature. What compulsions drive a man? What instincts dominate his actions, even though his language so often camouflages what really motivates him? This is the basis of any great advertising and, of course, has little to do with where or how the advertising appears. Wherever your consumer is, you need to speak to him in this way, via whatever medium. Whoever can manage to do that will own the future.

Dave Bedwood: We often say that a good joke in today’s world could be seen in dozens of different media from a billboard to a text message to Twitter to a press ad or on a phone, but what matters most is how good that joke is. To write a good joke takes a lot of skill and understanding of your audience. Without that it isn’t funny, and no one will laugh, remember, and pass it on.


Bill Bernbach: I am sure that is one of my analogies, but I will let it slide. It’s a good point and relevant whatever year it was originally said. Yes, you have fantastic technology, but it is only a conduit to the story, the idea. Those things, again, are powerful only if they are written in a way that touches the human psyche. The most difficult thing, as always, is not creating technology that allows you to share content; it is making content that is worth sharing.

Sam Ball: And how about the fact that people can now get involved in your advertising? Or ignore it altogether if they wish?

Bill Bernbach: How can they ignore it altogether?

Sam Ball: People are becoming more and more in control of their media and how they receive it. So for instance, with TV you can record it and play it back, skipping all the adverts if you like.

Bill Bernbach: How does the programming afford to be on air? Anyway, I think this is a natural progression, and to be frank, most of the advertising we used to have on TV was terrible – but that was because it wasn’t made with the core creative philosophies I’ve been talking about. Whatever content you make today, as an advertiser you need to make sure it’s good enough that the consumer wants to consume it. That, in my opinion, happens only when it’s written from the standpoint I’ve laid out.

Dave Bedwood: How do you combat the rising power of consumers when they can use the internet to express their opinions, make their voices heard, and damage an advertising campaign and product?

Bill Bernbach: If there really is two-way communication because of the internet, then I feel that there is even more need to write advertising that adheres to these core philosophies. Anything that doesn’t will rightly become a victim of this consumer power. Surely, we will get less bad work…?

Dave Bedwood: Do you wish you were in advertising today?

Bill Bernbach: Well, I’d be alive, so yes.… It does sound very interesting. My agency always wanted to create in the latest idiom. In my era, that was TV; in yours, it’s digital media. Like the sixties, it sounds like it’s a unique time for advertising creativity. In my day, it was a change of mentality that allowed greater freedom and the letting go of old ways. Now it sounds like technology is provoking this creative revolution.

(long silence)

Bill Bernbach: I have to go now. J Walter has got a couple of tickets to Johnny Cash and Buddy Holly’s new band.


Marie Beresford: He is fading….

Dave Bedwood: Ah, quickly, Bill! What is it like on the other side? What does it look like? What happens to you when you die? Do you get to play chess with Einstein? Are there animals in heaven? Is God a man? What was before the Big Bang? Is there life on other planets? Will the universe go on expanding? Will Dare go on expanding? Is—

Marie Beresford: He’s gone.…

(long pause)

Sam Ball: Is Colonel Sanders still with us?

Extract taken from Digital Advertising: Past, Present and Future

About Sam and Dave

Sam and Dave have been a creative team since 1995. Fortune more than foresight saw a move to digital in 1999. Since then they have been captivated by the unlimited opportunities afforded by digital. The year 2005 saw them pick up Campaign’s Young Achievers of the Year Award, and their UK peers voted them the number-one creative team in digital, an achievement that has graced every biog thereafter. Since starting Lean Mean Fighting Machine have won a whole bunch of awards; their proudest moment came in 2008 when Lean Mean Fighting Machine were the first ever UK agency to be crowned Interactive Agency of the Year at Cannes. As a youngster Dave used to play for Aston Villa, whilst Sam starred in a TV commercial for Atora suet. Follow them at your own risk @dbedwood and @samuelball.