Generalists beat specialists

What made Bill Bernbach great was he was a generalist not a specialist.

A specialist has just one part of the job that they’re very good at.

A generalist sees the overall job. 

Take Levy’s bread, for example.

The owner came to Bill Bernbach and said his packaged rye bread wasn’t selling.

Bernbach didn’t get a planner involved to interview consumers and write a brief.

Bernbach asked the client where he was running his ads.

The client said he was running them in The Jewish Chronicle.

Bernbach didn’t get a media specialist involved to check the numbers and recommend a more efficient media spend.  

He said to the client: “That’s your problem: The JC is a Jewish newspaper and we Jews won’t eat packaged rye, we’ll buy it fresh.”

The client said: “So what do I do?”

Bernbach said: “You have to advertise to non-Jews, who’ve never tried rye bread, so they won’t see packaged as inferior to fresh.”

The client said: “With my budget, where can I reach all these non-Jews?”

Bernbach didn’t get an online media specialist to do a run on micro-targeting.

Bernbach said: “Subway posters is a good place, it’s got a real multi-ethnic feel, everyone uses the subway, it’ll seem like your bread is part of New York.”

And Bernbach gave that brief to the creative department.

He didn’t call a meeting of strategists to turn it into a multi-slide PowerPoint presentation.

The creative department came back with the line: YOU DON’T HAVE TO BE JEWISH TO LOVE LEVY’S.

That was bang-on Bernbach’s brief.

Normally it would have to stop right there, showing the brief portrayed by a WASPy family enjoying a rye sandwich.

But Bernbach’s creatives weren’t strait-jacketed by committee approval.

So they added the part that made it go viral: each poster was a person of different ethnic origin enjoying a rye-bread sandwich.

A Chinese man, a little black boy, a Native American, an Irish cop, not a WASP in sight.

And they only had to get Bernbach’s approval, and Bernbach was a generalist.

So he could see how ALL the parts fitted together.

The problem, the opportunity, the consumer, the media, the creative.

Because he was a generalist he was able to think in parallel not in series.

If you remember your physics from school, “parallel” is when the current passes through all resistances simultaneously, “series” is when it must pass through them one at a time.

Modern advertising is done the other way round to Bernbach, in series not in parallel.

Because modern advertising is done by specialists not generalists.

It’s done by people who can’t see the overall picture, just their own particular part.

Consequently, they think that part is always the most important part.

Once planning has written the brief, strategic thinking doesn’t get any further, that’s it, signed off, cast in stone.

The same when media delivers their plan.

So all that’s left for creatives is to add some style (pictures and puns) at the end of the process.

Because the process is run by specialists, not generalists.

A young account man once wanted to show me his brief, I asked why, he said: “In case the ads are no good you’ll know I did my part well.”

I told him, I’ll know how well you did your part when I see the ads.

Because the whole job is your job.

Dave Trott is the author of Creative Blindness and How to Cure It, Creative Mischief, Predatory Thinking and One Plus One Equals Three

Subscribe today for just $116 a year

Get the very latest news and insight from Campaign with unrestricted access to campaignlive.com , plus get exclusive discounts to Campaign events

Become a subscriber

GET YOUR CAMPAIGN DAILY FIX

Don’t miss your daily fix of breaking news, latest work, advice and commentary.

register free