An Interview with Dominik Imseng

Imseng final
Dominik Imseng, author of
“Think Small: The story of the world’s greatest ad”

It takes an unusual person to write a biography of the world’s greatest ad – and fortunately Dominik Imseng is that person. With a background in both journalism and advertising – including tours at Zurich McCann and Jung von Matt – Dominik writes regularly about advertising in his native Switzerland. So what’s a Swiss guy doing writing about an American ad? We asked him about that and the other challenges he faced dedicating an entire book to the story of Volkswagen’s “Think Small” ad.  

inspiration

Agency Review:

In addition to being one of the greatest ads of all time, “Think Small” has to be one of the most discussed and written about in the history of advertising – an industry notorious for discussing and writing just about anything. So what inspired you to write about it? What did you feel hadn’t been said that still needed to be? What did you think you could bring to the story that hadn’t been explored?

Imseng:

It’s true that I’m not the first to write about the Volkswagen campaign. But I realized that the story of “Think Small” had never been told in full. How come only 14 years after the Holocaust a Jewish agency was selling Hitler’s car? How come Bill Bernbach, who hadn’t entered advertising until the age of 30, revolutionized the industry? A lot of interesting questions had never been answered because they had never been asked. And there was a formal aspect too that I found intriguing: there have been books on a single painting, a single rock album, a single piece of architecture – but there hadn’t been a book on a single piece of advertising, and that’s what I set out to change.

Agency Review:

That’s quite brilliant, actually, and yet it begs the question: why now? What do you think it is about our curious current zeitgeist that made you think that advertising should be elevated to the status of great buildings, albums, paintings? It would never occur to someone in Bernbach’s era to do so, with any ad.

Imseng:

That’s a difficult question. Personally, I had the idea to write the book in 2009 when “Think Small” celebrated its 50th birthday. I had taken its anniversary as a pretext to interview George Lois who had been working at DDB back then and whom I had always wanted to meet – his output in the 60s and 70s is simply amazing. Preparing the interview, I started to realize that a lot of the information about the early years of DDB and about Bill Bernbach in particular was superficial, inaccurate or both. So I started writing. But you’re right: there may have been an element of zeitgeist too. Would I have written a book about an ad from 1959 had “Mad Men” not been around to revive my interest in advertising history? I’ll never know.

difficulty

Agency Review:

There must have been a lot of challenges inherent in writing a book about a campaign that happened more than fifty years ago – as you point out, Bernbach and Krone had died, but also many of the participants probably had very different memories of what happened and by whom. Plus there’s the fact that you’re based out of Switzerland – that couldn’t have made things simpler.

Imseng:

It’s true that I couldn’t talk to Bill Bernbach and Helmut Krone anymore. But I was able to conduct extensive interviews with Julian Koenig, who wrote the first two versions of “Think Small,” and the late Bob Levenson, who wrote the third. I also had a long talk with Carl Hahn who was head of Volkswagen of America at the time – maybe the best client an advertising agency has ever had.

Agency Review:

Wait, expand on that a little bit. What did Hahn do that clients should learn from and emulate?

Imseng:

I think what made Hahn such a great client was his no-nonsense approach to advertising. Why pay for ads if you don’t have something relevant to say? If you don’t want to get noticed? If you don’t want to get talked about? Hahn realized that advertising can be an extremely powerful tool – if you have the guts to use it.

Agency Review:

Well put. Okay back to the topic at hand – were there parts of the book that you had to really wrestle with, or perhaps even excised from the book altogether because you just didn’t feel you were getting the story resolved in a way that made sense to you?

Imseng:

Not really. I won’t say that writing the book was a walk in the park, but its somewhat self-evident structure and narrative gave me a clear “to-write list.” Even putting together the pieces of the memories of all those advertising legends I interviewed wasn’t too difficult. These conversations were the best part about writing the book, by the way. As a philosopher, you can’t talk with Plato and Aristotle who started it all. But as a copywriter, you can.

writing

Agency Review:

Your background is in both journalism and advertising – which made you uniquely qualified to write the book you wrote.

Imseng:

You’re right. As a journalist, I was able to investigate and interview. As a copywriter, I knew what I was writing about. As a philosophy graduate, I was hopefully able to find a meaning to it all. And as a Swiss, I could remain neutral to the epic quarrel between Julian Koenig and George Lois. (Laughs.)

Agency Review:

I think that if you were trying to get between Julian and George you were wise to put an ocean and a mountain range between yourself and those two. But it raises an interesting question – tell me what you think of their quarrel and why it exists.

Imseng:

I don’t know in detail why they have been at each others’ throats for so long, but the main problem seems to be that Lois takes credit for ideas that Koenig came up with – at least that’s what Koenig says. We will never know who’s right and who’s wrong in this debate. Maybe neither of them is. It’s true that there are other people claiming that Lois has taken credit for their ideas. But it’s also true that Koenig stopped producing outstanding work after his falling-out with Lois, whereas Lois has proved his creative strength again and again.

Agency Review:

Good point, and it speaks to something I’ve been wrestling with myself; as brilliant as his work was, I’m not sure Koenig was really an “ad man” – I think he just liked being creative, solving problems. That is, he wasn’t interested in advertising per se, as much as he was interested in thinking up great stuff that sometimes applied to advertising. Howard Gossage was like that, I think – which is probably why his advertising often doesn’t read like advertising – it wanders back and forth between journalism and copywriting. But it begs the question: How does writing an ad differ from writing an article? Or do you think these two types of writing aren’t different at all and, as one friend of mine likes to say, “writing is writing?”

Imseng:

“Writing is writing” is both right and wrong. Both journalism and copywriting are hard work, so writing actually is writing. But my ads are signed by the agency, and my articles are signed by me. As a writer, this puts me under much more pressure. It’s about building my brand, not someone else’s.

Agency Review:

That’s very interesting to me, because I think it’s something that actually creates a lot of friction in agencies – this idea that the creatives have their own brand that somehow must exist within the brand of the agency. In the 60s, that was solved by creatives going out and starting their own agencies. Lois, Koenig, Wells, Della Femina, etc. But now, when agencies are struggling to have their own brands within holding companies, how do creatives maintain their own brands?

Imseng:

Mmh, that’s a tough one … I think the only way for creatives to create and own their own brand is still to start their own agency – and not sell it to a network. (Laughs.)

Agency Review:

Good luck with that (Laughs). Going back for a second to your double background: how do you think journalism and advertising are responding to the rise of social media – and which do you think is responding better?

Imseng:

To be honest, I’m not the right person to answer your question. If I was, I wouldn’t have written a book about an ad from 1959, right? (Laughs.) But then again, wasn’t “Think Small” social media before social media? Didn’t the ad get discussed at the water cooler and hung up on the wall? Maybe one of the lessons of “Think Small” is that every medium should be social: not just Facebook or Twitter, but print ads, posters, a direct marketing piece and TV too.

Agency Review:

You touch on something that I’ve been arguing with people about for quite some time – that the real measure of everything is word of mouth. That the measure of “Think Small”’s brilliance isn’t the number of media placements, but that we are still talking about it now. That someone tells someone else about it and passes the message along that way, with their implied “seal of approval.” Or do you think I’m just looking at the world through “social media-tinted glasses?”

Imseng:

You’re not. An idea is only as good as the buzz it creates. When people go on YouTube or Google to actively look for your ad because they’ve heard how great it is – that’s when you know you’ve really been creative

bogusky

Agency Review:

At the end of “Think Small” you interview Alex Bogusky, whom you describe as “The new Bill Bernbach.” What exactly do you think that title means, and do you think there are others who might be claimants to it now?

Imseng:

You’re not the first to ask me about the Bogusky chapter. Almost everybody does that – and mostly in disagreement. But I still think that I rightly called Alex “The new Bill Bernbach.” Under his creative leadership, Crispin Porter + Bogusky really started a new Creative Revolution: from offline to online, from paid media to buzz, from creating an ad campaign to launching popular movements. I haven’t seen anybody else re-inventing advertising the way that Alex Bogusky did.

Agency Review:

So the “Bernbach title” as it were is earned through creative leadership – that makes sense. But how interesting that your examples are all drawn from the use of different media – online, earned media, buzz – whereas Bernbach revolutionized forms that were even then “traditional” – print, TV, radio, etc.

Imseng:

I’m not sure if Bogusky didn’t revolutionize existing media too. Had the Internet been used before like he did with the Subservient Chicken site? Had TV been used before like he did with “Suite & Innocent” – his mock porn movies on pay-per-view hotel channels? Okay, I’ll admit: I’m a big Bogusky fan. (Laughs.)

Agency Review:

What do you think of Bogusky’s activities since leaving advertising?

Imseng:

I haven’t checked them out in detail, but I understand that he’s been involved in all kinds of sustainability projects – which gives me another reason to call him “The new Bill Bernbach.” All of us who professionally use the mass media,” Bernbach wrote, “are the shapers of society. We can vulgarize that society. We can brutalize it. Or we can help lift it onto a higher level. I think this is what Alex Bogusky is trying to do now. Respect!

Agency Review:

That’s a tremendous quotation from Bernbach, and it’s one that I think would give a lot of people in this business pause – this idea that there can be integrity and a higher purpose in advertising. Now, I grew up in an advertising house where we did respect what was possible – but that was rare then and is rarer still now. But it seems to be something you take very seriously.

Imseng:

I do, especially since I have become a dad. But I also think that there’s a correlation between being socially conscious and being creative. Look at all those people who made the Creative Revolution happen: Bernbach, Lois, Levenson, Della Femina, etc. They were Jews, Greeks, Italians and other ethnicities who not only wanted to change the WASPy advertising of their time, but the WASPy society of their time too. They helped make the US a freer and more colorful place. What’s the title of that great book by Steve Harrison about Howard Luck Gossage? “Changing the world is the only fit work for a grown man.” Gossage is Bogusky’s hero, by the way.

future

Agency Review:

It’s been almost 15 years since “Ad Age” proclaimed VW’s “Think Small” the greatest campaign in the history of advertising. But 15 years is a long time. So what campaigns do you think are making a run at the title? Or, conversely, do you think none are – and does that say something about the level of work being done, or perhaps that campaigns may be something of a dead art?

Imseng:

I don’t think so at all. There have been dozens of fantastic campaigns since 1959. But to me, there hasn’t been an ad as radically different as “Think Small” was back then. Not only did it cut through the clutter of the period’s car advertising – it cut through the clutter of advertising itself, standing out in a way no other ad had done before, or has done since. To me, “Think Small” is like Joyce’s “Ulysses” or Malevich’s “Black Square on a White Ground”: a break-through, the start of something completely new. Besides, “Think Small” helped turn the car of Hitler into the car of the hippies – what more could creativity achieve?

Agency Review:

Hold on, you can’t have it both ways. Either there are other campaigns that you’re willing to go out on a limb and say, “this could be looked back on as emblematic of its time,” or you say, “that whole idea isn’t possible any more.” Personally, I think it IS possible, but am willing to believe that we don’t see the value of something until we have the context of passing time. For example, Burger King’s “Whopper Sacrifice” campaign on Facebook (created by your man Bogusky) says a lot about our time and the media. As much as “Think Small?” I don’t know, it’s only been 4 years. Would I have crowned “Think Small” in 1963? I don’t know.

Imseng: It’s true what you say. When “Think Small” was created, the reaction was not, “This is the ad of the century.” In fact, Julian Koenig doesn’t recall any particular reaction to the ad at all. Only over the years did it become an iconic piece of advertising. But again: I don’t think it will be easy to create another anti-ad like “Think Small” was –it is almost impossible to imagine how different the ad looked in an era of colorful airbrush illustrations and grandiloquent claptrap. But hey: I’ll be very happy to be proven wrong. I would have a topic for another book! (Laughs.)

You can read our review of Dominik’s book here, or order it from Amazon here or from Barnes & Noble here – or pick it up at your local bookseller (find one here). Or you can reach out directly to Dominik here.

Illustration of Dominik Imseng by the brilliant Mike Caplanis

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