Copywriter Herzbrun: Mad Ave Glamour
A lot of foot soldiers contributed to the groundbreaking advertising created during the Mad Men era of the late 1950s and 1960s. David Herzbrun was one of them.
In his 40+ year career as a copywriter he toiled for Doyle Dane Bernbach, J. Walter Thompson and Ogilvy, among others. Although creative directors and copywriters might argue the analogy, a copywriter was akin to being a back-up bass player in a good band. You were constantly joining new teams or looking for your next award-winning gig.
In between working as a hired hand, Herzbrun even attempted a solo run with his own agency. But for this true collaborative writer, nothing ever matched the electric petrie dish, creativity and mentoring environment of his first stint with DDB–even his second stint at DDB years later when he discovered that the “MBA suits” had taken over the place.
It was at DDB that Herzbrun came to work on the Volkswagon account. At the time, Americans coveted their big v8 Cadillacs and Buicks. The “Bug” was an anomaly and foreign. But the creative team decided therein lay its hook. Among the notable VW ads created during this period was one of its most famous (and award-winning). “Snowplow” essentially answered the question, “How does the snowplow driver get to the snowplow?”
In his book, Playing in Traffic on Madison Avenue: Tales of Advertising’s Glory Years, Herzbrun recounts his copywriting gold, zingers earned by years of practicing his trade for big and small companies, all still valuable in today’s content-driven online marketplace:
- Don’t use big, high-falutin words. A dress cataloger once “dressed down” Herzbrun’s initial copy: “I changed words our readers might not understand. You’ve got to remember our ladies are not very educated but that doesn’t mean they’re dumb. I figure intelligence happens as much among poor as rich, same with those who go to college and those who don’t. Now you take a barely educated, intelligent lady and give her a word she don’t understand, and you make her feel dumb. That makes her feel bad. When she feels bad, she’s not in a buying mood. Make her feel dumb enough times, and she won’t read your catalog again. In fact, she’ll buy her dresses from someone who makes her feel smart.”
- “Never confuse art with technique. If museums did that they’d be filled with Rockwells and no Picasso’s.”
- Define the product’s target “persona.” On the Avis account, Herzbrun said, “We tried to define how Avis talked. It was Broderick Crawford in ‘Letter To Three Wives.’ The voice of a successful man who was very intelligent but not well educated, and who’d been raised on the wrong side of the tracks. This made it a lot easier to write the ads. Before writing I would first either cast or create the character who wouild do the (magazine) ad writing. This allowed me to write in a distinctive and appropriate style for each campaign. The characters became so real to me that even 27 years later, I can recall each of them vividly: The Scottish-born English educated New Yorker who spoke for Chivas; the Jamaican sugar millionaire whose English family settled the island four centuries ago and who studied English at Princeton; the ex-Army platoon sergeant from Newark who spent a lot of time on his feet in his appliance store and thought a lot about shoes.”
Today we think we invented “truth in advertising” with blogger reviews and bad customer service Twitter shout-outs. But there really is nothing new under the sun. During the Avis “We Try Harder” days, the pitch was, “We’ll never rent you a dirty car.” But when Herzbrun rented his Avis car, the ashtray was full of butts. He emptied the evidence into an envelope which became the inspiration for a pointed open letter of apology print ad that Avis surprisingly green-lighted.
Unfortunately, Herzbrun’s story, while filled with exotic travel, celebrities (Andy Warhol, Christo, Victor Borge) and large international clients, has a “relatively” unhappy financial ending compared to other early Mad Men who struck it rich with their award-winning creative. Living as an ex-pat while opening their international offices, there was a fluke in the DDB office org chart reorganization, and the company went public without him. Yet Herzbrun’s retained his good humor and was grateful to be “touched by glamour, sprinkled with stardust and destined for greatness.”