How a great art director almost killed the greatest ad

Doyle Dane Bernbach’s ‘Think small’ ad for the VW Beetle is
commonly credited as the greatest press ad ever. But it nearly never was…

In the fall of 1959, Volkswagen of America asked its advertising agency Doyle Dane Bernbach to prepare a corporate ad to fill space bought in the Journal of Commerce, a rather obscure publication of New Jersey’s chamber of commerce.

The ad “would talk about how much of the Volkswagen was ‘Made in the USA’ ,” recalled account supervisor Ed Russell. “[Creative team] Helmut Krone and Julian Koenig first came up with a concept that showed Detroit’s new Falcon, Corvair and Valiant [compact cars launched to take on the successful Beetle], headlined ‘Willkommen’. I felt that was pushing it a little – we were visitors to the United States; imports. And with this high profile we should not get snotty.”

Assistant VW advertising manager Helmut Schmitz agreed, but reading Koenig’s body copy, he discovered the phrase, “Maybe we got so big because we think small.”

“That’s a wonderful line,” Schmitz said. “Don’t lose it.” (If you think that Schmitz would have been a great creative director, so did [DDB founder] Bill Bernbach who, in 1966, made him the chief creative of the agency’s first German subsid­iary, DDB Düsseldorf.)

Nice story but…

Copywriter Koenig remembers things differently. He recalls the ‘Willkommen’ headline but not an ad showing those first compact cars coming out of Detroit.

“My recollection is this: I suggested to Helmut an ad with ‘Think small’ as the headline, because at that time American cars were big, America thought big. But Helmut rejected the line because it was an abstract notion. After a couple of days of arguing, I changed the headline to the German line ‘Willkommen’ – in the sense of ‘Welcome to the Volkswagen’- and put the words ‘Think small’ in the body copy. The ad, showing a small Beetle, was presented by the account people to Volkswagen in New Jersey. Helmut Schmitz didn’t like the line ‘Willkommen’ which he thought too German. But while reading the body copy, he discovered and liked the words ‘Think small.’ So we changed the line ‘Willkommen’ to ‘Think small’.”

At least that’s what Koenig thought they would do, but Krone still hated the headline – and refused to finalise the ad.

What an ironic twist of fate: because of Bernbach’s empowerment of the art director, Julian Koenig had decided to work in advertising again, but now one of these empowered art directors refused to produce the ad that would make him a legend.

Fidgety perfectionism

“Julian came to me,” remembers George Lois who was DDB’s art director on the VW Bus at the time, “and said, ‘I want to do an ad for Volkswagen, and I can’t get Helmut to do it.’ I asked Julian, ‘What’s the headline?’ He said, ‘Think small.’ ‘Jesus Christ, that’s a great line,’ I told him. So he said, ‘Do me a layout!’ I said, ‘I can’t do that, get outta here! You got to convince Krone to do it. You got to force him to do it!'”

Finally, Krone started with lay­outs and, after several days of figuring out where to put the Beetle on the page, he positioned the car in the upper left corner, giving the ad a graphic twist that was as ingenious as Koenig’s headline.

A couple of weeks later, Krone – “a fidgety perfectionist” (Lois) – was labouring on ‘Think small’ again, making the headline smaller and the angle of the car sharper for a consumer version of the original corporate ad to run in magazines like Life or Look in early 1960.

The ad of the century?

But not only the art direction was revised: Koenig, now targeting potential car buyers [rather than the NJ chamber of commerce], wrote completely new copy, starting with the news that “18 New York University students have gotten into a sun-roof VW; a tight fit” and ending with the lines, “In 1959 about 120,000 Americans thought small and bought VWs. Think about it.”

“The reaction was definitely not ‘This is the ad of the century’,” Julian Koenig recalls [of the ad’s reception by the industry]. “In fact, I don’t remember any particular reaction to ‘Think small’ at all.

Only over the years did it become an iconic piece of advertising.”

This extract is taken from Think Small: The Story of the World’s Greatest Ad by Dominik Imseng, published by Full Stop Press in August; £15.99. Reproduced with permission

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