Upon entering the office of DDB North America CCO Ari Weiss, you immediately come face-to-face with a portrait of its original occupant, creative legend and one of the agency’s founders, Bill Bernbach. But Bernbach’s presence doesn’t just emanate from the painting — his spirit is palpable in the agency’s current work, the attitudes of the creatives and the office atmosphere.
Weiss joined DDB in January to become the agency’s first-ever CCO for North America. “I felt like I was moving into a museum. You feel the history every day,” he said of his new office digs. “It’s a huge part of what attracted me to DDB. To sit in this living museum of an office is a tremendous honor and a great daily reminder of what we’re here to accomplish.”
Prints of 1950s and 1960s advertisements hang framed on the walls. Among them: Volkswagen’s “Think Small” and “Lemon” ads, Avis’ “We Try Harder,” Levy’s “You Don’t Have to Be Jewish to Love Levy’s” campaign, and the ad that perhaps changed it all, Orbach’s “I Found Out About Joan.”
These are just a few examples of Bernbach’s work credited with igniting the mid-century “creative revolution” and defining modern advertising — the work Weiss studied in his college textbooks. The ideas of distinct brand personalities, the power of an emotional connection and purpose-driven work just scratch the surface of the creative beliefs that defined Bernbach’s — and now Weiss’ — approach to leading the agency.
One of Weiss’ first projects upon joining DDB this year was McDonald’s recent unbranded campaign, where the word “McDonald’s” is never mentioned or shown on screen. To Weiss, the campaign embodies the “rebel spirit” of Bernbach-style advertising that originally attracted him to the industry.
“We have to find new ways to have familiar conversations and provide value because we’re invading people’s lives,” he said. “We asked the client to spend a whole bunch of money against something they were never going to explicitly put their name on. To be in this room and know the bar you’ve got to live up to shaped that work.”
Bravery is a recurring theme for DDB’s past and present leadership: “In this moment, brands need to stand for something more than ever, but there’s a fear to take a stance,” Weiss said, recalling one of Bernbach’s many famous quotes (“If you stand for something, you will always find some people for you and some against you. If you stand for nothing, you will find nobody against you, and nobody for you.”) “Every great brand’s success lies within having that confidence — having that bravery — to stand for something. If you don’t have a point of view, you can’t help or connect with anyone, and at the end of the day, we’re here to help and connect.”
For DDB Worldwide chairman emeritus Keith Reinhard — an adland icon himself and recipient of the 2015 Clio Lifetime Achievement Award — who also inhabited this same office for many years of his career — such courage is an imperative two-way street for a successful agency-client relationship, something he felt sitting in that office everyday.
One of the many conversations Reinhard recalls having in this office was following “the worst presentation [he’d] ever seen the agency make” to JCPenney. Afterwards, he led the CMO to the office and asked for another shot in two weeks. The CMO agreed, and DDB won the business two weeks later.
“I thought this was a reasonably brave thing to ask for another chance — and brave for the client, too. He had just seen a presentation that smelled up the room, and he was brave enough to give us another shot,” Reinhard said. “[Bernbach once] said: ‘The future, as always, belongs to the brave.’ The Bernbach ethos is in the air here. You feel it, and you know that if you follow his advice, you can create content that will engage and touch human drives.”
When Weiss first moved into his new office and felt the responsibility of that “Bernbach ethos” in the air, he first found it intimidating.
“How does that high bar affect you? Does it melt you, or do you sit up tall and accept that responsibility?” Weiss posited. “As I’ve gotten comfortable here, I’ve found that it gives you the confidence to be creatively purpose driven. Once you accept that that’s what you do here, it’s liberating.”
Weiss pointed to a recent Wildlife Conservation Film Festival campaign by DDB New York, a heartbreaking animated video of animals singing Les Miserables’ “I Dreamed a Dream” as the environment is destroyed.
“If you look at the best work, it makes you feel something,” he said. “The WCFF video took something emotional and re-appropriated it to a different purpose. It’s an incredibly powerful message.”
That humanity is at the heart of what Bernbach instinctively knew and what DDB’s leaders like Reinhard and Weiss have helped carry on.
Researchers are now dedicating their studies to proving what Bernbach preached 60 years ago. Now, creatives can go to brand CEOs and speak to them in their language — profits, the bottom line — pointing to data that proves brands who speak with humanity perform better than brands who don’t.
Said Reinhard of such a legacy: “What he did, what he said, his insights deserve to live on for the benefit of clients around the world. Our dream is to build upon those insights.”
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