Bill Bernbach was born in The Bronx, New York City to Rebecca and Jacob Bernbach. He attended New York City public schools and in 1932 earned a B.A degree from New York University. He had majored in English but also studied business administration, philosophy and music, playing the piano .
In 1933, Bernbach took a job running the Schenley Distillers mailroom. This was during the Depression and a family connection got him the job. He pro-actively wrote an ad for Schenley's American Cream Whiskey, which he got into the right hands and the ad ran. He was promoted to the advertising department.
He left Schenley in 1939 to ghost-write for Grover Whalen, the head of the 1939 World's Fair and the following year he entered the advertising industry at the William Weintraub agency. He saw two years' active service in World War II and thereafter had a role at Coty, followed by a position at Grey Advertising. He commenced there as a Copywriter but was promoted to Creative Director by 1947.
In 1949, with Ned Doyle whom he had met at Grey and Mac Dane who was already running a tiny agency, Bernbach founded their eponymous ad agency in Manhattan.
From its founding Bernbach played an integral role in the writing of advertising, distancing himself from the administrative and promotional aspects of the business which were left to Dane. He served as the creative engine behind the agency helping billings to increase from approximately US$1 million to more than US$40 million by the time he retired. DDB grew to become the 11th largest advertising agency in America by 1976, when Bernbach stepped aside as Chief Executive Officer to became chairman of the executive committee.
Notable campaigns of Bernbach's are, We Try Harder for Avis Car Rental, Mikey for Life Cereal, You Don't Have to be Jewish to Love Levy's for Levy's Rye Bread, and It's so simple for Polaroid. His most notable campaign was for Volkswagen, which included ads such as Think Small and Lemon.
Bernbach was noted for his devotion to creativity and offbeat themes, a legacy that has credited him as a major force behind the Creative Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. His work often was characterized by simplicity. He also is credited with being the first to combine copywriters and art directors into two-person teams—they commonly had been in separate departments—a model that still exists in advertising agencies today.
Bernbach won many awards and honors for his work within the advertising industry during his career. He was inducted into the Copywriters Hall of Fame in 1964, received the The Man of the Year of Advertising Award in 1964 and 1965, and The Pulse Inc., Man of the Year Award in 1966. He was also named "Top Advertising Agency Executive" in 1969 and received the American Academy of Achievement Award in 1976 and was inducted into the American Advertising Federation Hall of Fame in same year. He designed the Advertising Hall of Fame "Golden Ladder" trophy.
The AMC program, Mad Men, which centers on the fictional ad agency of Sterling Cooper in the early 1960s, makes many references to Bernbach; Bernbach's innovative techniques challenge Sterling Cooper's more orthodox style, and DDB often is mentioned as a competitor in the second season.
At the Schenley Distillers mailroom in the 1930s one of Bernbach's assistants was Evelyn Carbone, a college student at Hunter who addressed labels on outgoing mail. While Bernbach worked his way into the advertising department, Evelyn became a receptionist. They fell in love and were married in 1938 by a Justice of the peace. Bernbach's family was against the marriage on religious grounds, but they lived happily and had two sons - John and Paul. After Bill's death, Evelyn and Bob Levenson the DDB creative leader, published "Bill Bernbach's Book: A History of Advertising that Changed the History of Advertising".
"Let us prove to the world that good taste, good art, and good writing can be good selling."
"All of us who professionally use the mass media are the shapers of society. We can vulgarize that society. We can brutalize it. Or we can help lift it onto a higher level."
"The truth isn't the truth until people believe you, and they can't believe you if they don't know what you're saying, and they can't know what you're saying if they don't listen to you, and they won't listen to you if you're not interesting, and you won't be interesting unless you say things imaginatively, originally, freshly."
"It may well be that creativity is the last unfair advantage we're legally allowed to take over our competitors."