It’s arguable that copywriting is at the heart of all advertising and marketing today. We remember taglines and recall jingles; and copy is the beginning of most brand stories. But, boy, is it fantastic to look back at a time when it really was all about the words.

Bill Bernbach was the founding creative director of legendary Manhattan ad agency Doyle Dane Bernbach. He came out with quotes like:

“Advertising is fundamentally persuasion and persuasion happens to be not a science, but an art”, and

“Word of mouth is the best medium of all”, and

“Rules are what the artist breaks; the memorable never emerged from a formula.”

That’s really provocative stuff that makes you nod your head at the truth and simple power of his thinking – and imagine how inspiring but uncompromising a boss he would have been. What an exhilarating time to be writing.

Bernbach not only had a way with a turn of phrase, but he also really set up the structure of creative teams for marketing and advertising, and was, of course, part of the inspiration for Mad Men. But mostly, he was a writer. And what a writer he was. His firm revolutionised advertising copy and laid out the early foundations for brand storytelling through engaging narrative and brand persona development. We can, and have, all learned from these guys.

In the 1960s, DDB took on Volkswagen as a client and began creating a series of print ads that referred to the VW as a “lemon” and encouraged consumers to “think small”. The copy, by the incomparable Julian Koenig, starts out saying “This Volkswagen missed the boat. The chrome strip on the glove compartment is blemished, and must be replaced.” Not exactly sales speak.

It was funny. It was clever. And it was ground-breaking.

For the rest of the decade, VW kept their unconventional campaign rolling. DDB’s strategy of turning seeming faults into benefits was a huge hit. One ad didn’t even include a picture of the little lemon: “No point in showing you the 1962 Volkswagen. It still looks the same.”

Much has been written about the ads, and you can take a look at a bunch of them here if you like. It was ranked the best advertising campaign of the twentieth century by Ad Age, and it deserves the title. This sort of brand bravery is rare and may be a little of its time, too. The truth is that the power is all right there, in the copy, which exists to inspire us. Last words to Mr Bernbach himself:

You can say the right thing about a product and nobody will listen. You’ve got to say it in such a way that people will feel it in their gut. Because if they don’t feel it, nothing will happen.

What is your brand really saying?