Lost horizons: unlikely lessons in diversity from 1950s New York

Lost horizons: unlikely lessons in diversity from 1950s New York

Diversity is the key to unlocking raw and unbridled creativity. It is time to step up and challenge the status quo, writes Creativebrief's managing director.

In looking to build an industry business case for diversity, I can appreciate it might seem odd to hark back to 1950s New York.

Complex and delicate as it may be though, that’s exactly what I intend to do having recently re-read The Real Mad Men by Andrew Cracknell.

There are two things I should state here in full disclosure. Andrew is (for better or worse) my father-in-law. Andrew (sadly) is paying me nothing to write this piece. Hey-ho.

But I do believe there are valuable lessons to be learned from an era that might more immediately conjure up images of discrimination, misogyny and racism.

It’s important to start by setting the scene.

Against an uncertain social backdrop, New York at the time was entering an intoxicating period of experimentation in the worlds of art, literature and music.

Miles Davis was a growing force on the jazz scene, Kerouac and Ginsberg dazzled, Warhol was finding his feet and just shy of establishing The Factory, a young Dylan was about to bowl into town.

Vigilance and activism is the only route forward

Raw and unbridled creativity was fizzing through the city.

In the ad industry, a handful of revolutionaries were beginning to have a disproportionate impact on the advertising landscape that would change things forever.

One man in particular set about tearing-up the rule book.

In 1949, Bill Bernbach wrote his now infamous resignation letter at Grey and in a flash set-up Doyle Dane Bernbach (DDB). This was the agency that would become the beating heart of the ensuing ‘Creative Revolution’.

The entirety of what Bernbach and his peers achieved is simply too long to list, but the impact on the industry in little more than a decade was nothing short of remarkable.

The established advertising formula of the time was one of structured, rule-based, rational messaging; often pushy and selling hard.

Under the pioneering approach of DDB (and others that followed), there was a palpable shift from didactic and sometimes patronising to deferent and more respectful of consumers’ intelligence: fresh, challenging, playful and often funny.

But the point is less about the change itself, and more about those behind it.

Bernbach himself was the son of Russian and Austrian Jewish parents.

His head of copy (and key linchpin in both the work and ethics of the emerging DDB) was a lady by the name of Phyllis Robinson, who built a creative department around her that boasted more women than men.

Other key architects in the dramatic developments of the era were Mary Wells Laurence (the First Lady of advertising), George Lois (the son of Greek immigrants), Carl Ally (the son of an American-Italian mother and a Turkish father), Jerry Della Femina (of Italian descent) amongst numerous others.

It transpires then, that this era many look back on as the Golden Age in advertising was driven by a cohort of key protagonists who were minority group representatives: women, Jews, second- and third-generation immigrants from all manner of nationalities.

Bernbach and his contemporaries, led by the desire for ‘different’ above all else had recognised that a diversity of ideas (the real advertising currency) was born from wide-ranging backgrounds, perspectives and frames of reference. 

As any dominant group feels power begin to slip away, the most instinctive reaction is an ominous tightening of the grip

Surely that is a blueprint for diversity that we should all be looking more closely at today? A fiercely compelling business case for change in contemporary times.

Yet somehow we have failed to learn. The "mature and developed" advertising world seems to have taken little but retrograde steps since that seminal period.  

This is particularly hard to stomach when you consider the environment of discrimination that Bernbach and his peers fought against (there were still reports of some clients specifying "no blacks or Jews" on their account, even in the late 60s).

Now thankfully we’re operating in an ostensibly different environment today. Febrile still, yes (for good reason), but finally more pliable and accommodating to the need for change.

The broader cultural stage would suggest as much too. Doctor Who will soon return to our screens in the form of Jodie Whittaker. Star Wars now has a kick-ass female lead, fast-becoming cult feminist icon. Clamours rise for James Bond to be played by either a female or black actor.

So surely our industry’s journey to greater diversity will be a straightforward undertaking from here? Only it won’t be; know that.

As any dominant group feels power begin to slip away, the most instinctive reaction is an ominous tightening of the grip. (Did anyone watch the very brilliant television adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale?).

So vigilance and activism is the only route forward. We all must take responsibility for not becoming fatigued by the regularity with which the topic now arises.

It’s for this reason that at Creativebrief we’re establishing an ongoing partnership with Creative Equals.

In February we outlined in Campaign the launch of a section on our digital platform that challenged agencies to be ever-more transparent about diversity in their personnel make-up at all levels of the organization.

With Creative Equals we will take this a stage further, enabling those agencies signed-up to their Creative Industry Equality Standard to display the kitemark and demonstrate a serious commitment to change.

The aims of our efforts are simple.

Firstly to continue to urge a more open (and less defensive) dialogue around the topic industry-wide; to drive a symbiosis between brands and agencies that sees them hold each other to account.

Secondly to use technology to generate greater commercial benefit for both parties in shifting the dial on diversity; a key thing for us in the fight to pilot a more prescient industry vision.

Because whilst Bernbach may have been a diversifier, his decisions were led by what he believed was best for his business and those of his clients. And while we mustn't lose sight of the moral arguments, practicality is what will propel the next phase of our industry’s diversity struggle.

Charlie Carpenter is managing director at Creativebrief


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