VW advertising: Inspired vs. Inspired lunacy

Volkswagen is in review. Either the churlish magicians at Crispin Porter & Bogusky ran out of spells (doubtful) or VW’s brand managers ran out of patience (more likely). Here is a quote from their VP of marketing, Tim Ellis pulled from Adweek:

“The Volkswagen brand needs to inspire our base of enthusiasts as well as reach out and captivate those in mainstream America. Therefore, we are re-evaluating all areas of our business, and after careful considerations have decided to take the necessary steps to ensure we have the right agency partner in place.”

For their part, CP&B provided a polite good-bye, citing their policy not to defend in reviews. Bully for them.

Forgive me the following cliché’ but “Yada, yada, yada.”

This is not the first time a red-hot agency came, made its mark on VW, then left. We all know the history. Doyle Dane Bernbach changed advertising forever by calling the VW Bug a “Lemon” in an advert. Dozens more iconic print and TV ads followed. This was a big deal for both parties but mostly (and somewhat secretly) it was a big deal for the agency. When the buzz died so too did sales. And so began a rollercoaster ride for the automaker that has continued to this day, of dizzying highs and demoralizing lows.

VW has got to be the most underachieving car brand in the world. Always flirting with being great but never achieving it. VW is like someone’s troubled big sister: sexy, beautiful, well heeled, but she just can’t get her act together. Always in the conversation but never in the driveway. What’s her problem? She has everything going for her. Poor girl. What a shame.

You’ll notice I keep referring to Volkswagen as a “she.” That’s because it’s a female brand, unmistakably feminine. And that just might be the problem. VW is German. And Germany is masculine…very, very, very masculine. How does the brand reconcile the two? My opinion, it doesn’t. Hence the metaphor of one’s confused big sister. Can you say bi-curious?

VW has always adored creativity. Hence all those fun ads from DDB, Arnold and CP&B. But America has trepidations about this girly German. The ads draw us to her but then we, too, get confused. Guys won’t (can’t?) buy Jettas and Pissots and certainly not the Bug, with that silly flower holder by the dash. Das Auto looks like a lady! Clearly, not enough women buy VWs either. I think they’re just as puzzled by the brand.

Whichever agencies participate in the review better not get hung up on the brand’s notorious advertising past. They and Volkswagen would be better served delivering a message of stability and integrity. The hipster stuff is just making everybody nervous.

While you’re musing on the sexual orientation of Volkswagen, check out the fascinating anthem below. Somewhere inside it lurks both VW’s problem and solution.

Steff on Twitter


Apparently one of the few legitimate Gods of Advertising was more mortal than we thought. According to a new book written by a colleague of his at Doyle Dane Bernbach (former head of PR, Doris Willens), world famous creative director Bill Bernbach was often insecure and petty, and could be cruel and offensive toward his staff. At least that’s what I gleaned from the review given to the book by AdAge reporter, Rupal Parekh.

“Nobody’s Perfect. Bill Bernbach and the Golden Age of Advertising” is the book’s title. I haven’t read it yet. (Right now I’m plowing through John Updike’s “Rabbit” novels –a major undertaking!) Based on its Amazon number the book appears to be selling fairly well, which comes as no surprise. Bernbach was the Alex Bogusky or Lee Clow of his day. He changed the Mad Men era of hard sell advertising into the creatively driven apparatus most of us aspire to. I won’t go into all the creative highlights (Chivas, VW, Avis, etc) but like many of my peers I studied all of them as a newcomer in advertising. Anyone reading this post ought to as well. ‘Nuff said!

What I’m interested in here is the revelation that Mr. Bernbach may have been an insecure creep. We tend to elevate our heroes into sainthood (unfairly) and one imagines Bill Bernbach as an inspired guru, nurturing and kind.

Ridiculous. Not only was he a suit-wearing businessman interested in making money but it appears he had numerous character defects as well. Just like you and just like me. I’ve been writing about insecurity in the creative department since starting this blog. I’ve ruminated about our unfortunate tendency toward criticism and our inability to accept it. For better and worse, I’ve likened the creative department to Romper Room.

Yet even I put Bernbach and his peers on a pedestal. As far as the advertising his shop created it’s totally deserved. But as a human being I’m afraid he’s just like the rest of us. Finding this out does not make me sad. In fact I find the revelations freeing. Lord knows I struggle with the competitive nature of our business and dealing with all the egos including my own. Glad to hear old Bill did too!

Love your “followship” Steffan\'s Twitter address

Even Death is bored.

First JWT closes down its 100-year old operation in Chicago, and then the much-beleaguered, much-named Enfatico is swept under the WPP rug. And the drumbeats get louder: Advertising is dead. TV is dead. Newspapers are dead. Long live the…

The what? The continuous reporting of death and destruction in Ad Land was inevitable and necessary but isn’t it part of a bigger story, a story that’s ready for part II…or even part III?

Honestly, the beginning of the End started 20 years ago, give or take, with the phenomenon of holding companies taking over the advertising landscape. A decade later the Internet arrived and, while at first aiding and abetting Ad Land, it quickly took on it’s own agenda, sucking advertising revenue from older media and, more crucially, changing how consumers and content relate to one another.

So here we are. In my last post I wrote with optimism about the future of marketing services. If big agencies are truly unified (not posing or fronting) they will prevail. Specialty shops always have a place. But I’m missing a piece, one that is critical.


Who among us will emerge from the chaos poised to reinvent? As current leadership (myself included) goes about playing the cards we have (some far better than others), where are the game changers?

Does marketing have a Michael Jordan or a Tiger Woods? Is marketing even the right word? Granted, unlike sports (where the game hardly changes at all) our world has been turned upside down. But still, we are only transitioning. In order for the ad game to be reinvented we need inventers.

Agencies like Crispin Porter & Bogusky and clients like Apple show us the potential for our industry. They think different and it shows. Alex and Steve are visionaries. My opinion, haters of CP&B are mostly ignorant, jealous or both. This agency is the modern version of Doyle Dane Bernbach. I’m sorry if that’s a hard pill to swallow. In his day, Bill took a lot of shit too. Apple needs no explanation or defense. So strong is their karma it altered not only technology and marketing, it changed the world.

So who’s next and what’s next? Instead of everyone criticizing the old models and their fat cat leaders, why aren’t we seeing any new gurus and game changers? Picking on Martin Sorrel and Howard Draft is so last year. Harping on the death of everything is equally laborious. If you want the definitive text on what went wrong and who’s to blame read The Ubiquitous Persuaders by George Parker.

It’s not a war between advertising and digital. Or direct marketing versus general. They are ALL important. And they are all in trouble. Enough said.

I’m declaring that part of the revolution over. Who among us is capable of delivering the new model for another fifty years, or even twenty? And yes, I’m talking to all the sharp shooters hiding within their cubes or trolling the Internet looking for targets. Put down your water pistols and figure this shit out.


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