Bill Bernbach, Steve Jobs, And Marshall McLuhan Walk Into A Cafe (And Talk About Advertising)

A modern-day ad man channels three communications legends.

Bill Bernbach, Steve Jobs, And Marshall McLuhan Walk Into A Cafe (And Talk About Advertising)

At a cafe a long way from here (and whose name I am not at liberty to divulge), Bill Bernbach, Marshall McLuhan, and Steve Jobs met for a cup of chamomile and a slice of Heavenly Hash cake. While it’s impossible to vouch for the complete veracity of this conversation, we can be reasonably sure that the ideas expressed below are accurate in what they uphold of the participants’ respective philosophies.


Bill Bernbach: Here we are in 2012, and I feel that at last we’re crossing that threshold to a place in which advertising can be more meaningful.

Steve Jobs: I think all communication is tilting towards becoming more meaningful, whether it’s the TV news, or a newspaper column or popular art. Remember Lennon singing “Imagine no more countries..?” With the web, that’s basically what’s happening. Bordered ideologies and self-centric propaganda are falling away. People are now wired to truth and less likely to tolerate falsehood and superficiality.

BB: Some will say they’re also more wired to untruth.

Marshall McLuhan: Well, yes. Media are really just extensions of some human faculty, psychic or physical, and “untruth” is very much an output of human behavior. No surprise really that in a global village, the garbage dump is as much in view as is the town hall of enlightenment.

SJ: I remember applying this insight of yours in the years at Apple. The “natural psychic relationship between the medium and the user” was very much a design principle for us.


MM: Well, this partly explains what makes Apple products so intuitive. I should be asking for stock options or at least insist that you pick up the bill for tea.

BB: It’s become a bit of a puzzle to me. If we really have these remarkable new tools with which to reach people, why aren’t we doing more remarkable new work? And it’s not that I’m still defining great work according to criteria we used back in the ‘60s.Whether we’re messaging through an iPad or via a black-and-white Zenith TV, the currency should remain the same, should it not? Advertising above all speaks to the unchanging core of what makes us human, and the work I see these days seems to assume that everyone has changed. It seems more desperately cool than insightfully accurate in the way it identifies the consumer.

MM: Most of what you’re talking about can be attributed to the way advertisers are defining their brands. They’re approaching the selling message culturally. They’re saying “you talk like this, you walk like this, you dress like this, well then you should eat at this place.” This bypassing of the unchanging core you talk about, is what makes communication more temporal and disposable simply because culture is always changing.
As long as we engage with transience, the more likely we are to capture the ephemeral. This may be a key reason why with some minor exceptions, we see less long-term brand building at work. The insights simply don’t last.

BB: Point well made.

MM: Language is suffering corruption too, affected by the forms found within the semaphore of text messaging and the colloquialism of the social media. It’s worth saying that viral advertising is premised on creating message contagion, but the virus also infects language rather radically.


SJ: Back to Bill’s point that he doesn’t see any brilliant work. I know you’ll agree that the ultimate purpose of advertising is to “sell.” Don’t you think today’s technology improves the effectiveness of a sales message? And Marshall, don’t you think the new media, social or otherwise, exert any positive influence on our humanity?

BB: I think technology may make a good idea work better, but it’s not a substitute for an idea. My issue is that these days technology is mostly covering up for the lack of ideas. We should be wary of technique or technology for its own sake, even when buying a lawn mower. But when great technology is harnessed to a great idea, watch out. We can change the world.

MM: Do social media exert any positive influence? Will the likes of Facebook make us more human? Not likely, but perhaps sites like Facebook or Twitter can make us more aware of what our humanity means. If you happen to be motivated by a certain ideology or if you happen to find a certain breed of dog attractive or happen to collect vintage cars, then your feeling of connectedness to those with similar affinities to yours brings with it a sense of belonging. It’s this feeling of belonging or communal acceptance that leads to self-acceptance, which we might call humanizing. I suppose that in itself is a good thing. But we should bear in mind that these social media sites are really only suburbs in the global village developed and run by its local citizens. They’re tremendously ghettoized within themselves. Let’s not mistake any social media site for a united and benign collective. That’s where their humanity ends. At least for the moment.

SJ: I can’t let Bill continue to feel phobic about the new tech.

BB: I’m not so much phobic about it as I am concerned that advertising agencies today are throwing their lot behind the tech rather than the persuasive selling idea the tech delivers. This is a pretty major departure. We’re steadily moving from being in the manufacturing business to being in the distribution business. This is not our reason for being. Our purpose and our benchmark for success has always been the quality of our “manufacturing”–our work. What we’re blindly hatching here is the ad agency of the future. And at this rate, that agency will be a media planning company with a creative director.


MM: I’m not so sure that this is as draconian a scenario as you think. Can’t the delivery system in itself be the idea? We’re sitting here with someone who proved that it could.

SJ: It’s not just that it can be the idea. It’s more crucial than that. The “delivery” as you call it, must be an idea in itself. On iPod, for example, the delivery idea was “1,000 songs in your pocket.” For us on iPod, the idea was on the inside. For Bill working on Avis or Volkswagen, the idea was on the outside–by outside I mean in the messaging. I think more products need to realize the need to build their ‘idea on the inside’ to truly succeed today. Polaroid, as Mr. Bernbach well knows, was ahead of its time in this regard. Which explains why I have always revered Edwin Land.

MM: This “i” seems to be extremely present on all kinds of merchandise in our culture today. There is something happening here that is hard to ignore so I may as well ask the question: Do I hear the murmur of an evolving i-ness that sounds suspiciously like ego rising? Think about it. This i nomenclature speaks to self, to personal gratification. People driving their iCar to their iHome to be welcomed by an iSpouse and their iKids.

SJ: (Laughs) I did hear about someone in Santa Monica who bought a Dalmatian and called it iDog. But here’s the larger truth of it: Someone walks down the street listening to an iPod and passes someone else on the street who’s also listening to an iPod. There is a moment in which they recognize each other–they belong to the same community. But the heart of their encounter is that they both know the songs in their respective pockets are mostly or completely different. It’s an unspoken recognition, but it’s both a magical and dignifying moment. What we’re looking at here is a new vantage point on persuasion in a culture-heavy society. We might call it offering the consumer a personal connection to a collective experience. This tells me that intelligent technology or intelligent products for that matter, don’t homogenize. Quite the opposite, they actually individualize. For me, that’s the real meaning of i. It’s not so much about vanity. It’s about authenticity.

BB: Now you have my attention. I likely stretched the patience of too many people by constantly pleading that advertising not be viewed as a science, but as an art. Yet even then, I always suspected that advertising rightfully belonged more with the humanities than anything else. What you’ve been touching on here, especially when you talk about authenticity, is compelling.


The new technology we’ve been speaking about along with these dialogue-driven new media platforms allow us an unprecedented new intimacy with our audience. Communication can no longer be excused for being irrelevant. We now know our prospect personally, and we’re able to go beyond simply the sale at hand. Suddenly we’re not just selling detergent to that part of the consumer that is looking for something to make her clothes whiter, but we’re talking to the whole-person part of who has a dirty-laundry problem. It’s a humanism that will help us finally escape the simplification of the consumer. Deeper insights, more innovative work, more meaningful relationships between brands and their audiences.
(At this point there appears to be long pause in the conversation in which not much is spoken. We can imagine some tea sipping and some expression of delight at the moistness of the Heavenly Hash cake.)

MM: We should be wary of reading too much into this place in history where we find ourselves, or overanalyzing its phenomena. There is so much change, so much in flux either evolving or devolving at astonishing speed, we’d be better off seeing this as a time of transition rather than as a formed incarnation of an age.
We might say we’re somewhere between the horse-drawn carriage and Ford’s Model T and still describing these wondrous new tools we have as a horseless carriage. There is certainly little doubt that we are not what we were. But we are not yet what we will become.

SJ:Not only that, but we can share the responsibilities of what we might become with more brilliant and imaginative minds than ever. Technology is now out of the lab and into the streets. The next world-changing idea won’t come out of M.I.T. or from a Nobel Laureate. It’ll come from a 10-year-old girl playing with an iPad and spotting something we all missed on Google Earth.

BB: Yes, and this new, liberated imagination is vital to the way we run our companies, to the products we make and the way we go about the business of communication today. I fear we’re lagging, still clinging to old models. Like the man who keeps waiting at the bus stop and being surprised that a rocket ship has stopped to pick him up.
I do know that if we ran an agency today I would do one thing very differently to the accepted process on Madison Avenue. We all took for granted that the creative was the last thing we did. That after all the research and strategic analysis and deliberation, it became the turn of the writer and the art director to transform the clay to sculpture.
I don’t believe that any longer. Today creativity as the last station on the assembly line is an anachronism. Our creative minds need to be present at the beginning, rethinking the product with the client, working with strategy and media and every aspect of the end product. Creativity can no longer be the last output; it must become the first input. My good friend Helmut Krone is deservedly recognized for his seminal art direction for our Volkswagen client, but today I would insist he help design the car itself.

MM: I have enjoyed the discussion and I thank you both. I’d especially like to thank Steve for so generously agreeing to pick up the tab for our tea.


Ian Mirlin is a Writer/Thinker and Founder of Zero Gravity Thinking.