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Bob Levenson was considered by his peers as one of the best ever advertising copywriters, if not the best, one of the original “Mad Men” who launched the creative revolution on Manhattan’s Madison Avenue in the 1960s and tossed conventional ideas out of the window. During more than a quarter of a century at Doyle Dane Bernbach (DDB) – said to have been the model for the Mad Men TV series – Levenson created many of the ads which changed the face of advertising, in the cinema and in the rocketing new phenomenon that was commercial television. He won every award in the business, several times over, was elected in 1972 to the Copywriters’ Hall of Fame (now known as the Creative Hall of Fame) and was often described as “the writer’s writer”.Levenson arrived at DDB in 1959, when its offices at 350 Madison Avenue were usually smoke-filled, its brainstorming sessions usually Martini-fuelled, its language often racist and misogynist – as reflected by staff at the fictitious agency Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce in the Mad Men series (on which Levenson was hired as a consultant). Its co-founder Bill Bernbach had just launched its breakthrough Volkswagen Beetle ads, initially with the catchlines “Think Small” and “Lemon”,- which flew in the face of ads for the gas-guzzling automobiles of the day.
“DDB had the air of a creative zoo,” Levenson recalled. His former colleague, the copywriter Phyllis Robinson, added: “we just felt very free, as if we had broken our shackles, had gotten out of jail, and were free to work the way we wanted to work”.
With the great Bernbach as something of a mentor, Levenson took the VW campaign to another dimension, creating the famous “snow plow” ads, which showed a Beetle crunching through deep, untouched snow to get to a snow plow, in which the VW driver then drives off. Then comes the voice, using Levenson’s words: “Have you ever wondered how the man who drives a snow plow gets to the snow plow? This one drives a Volkswagen. So you can stop wondering.” Continuing the theme of the Beetle’s size, he also wrote the famous ad “It makes your house look bigger.” He and his agency were poking fun at their product because consumers had been poking fun at it. But thanks to the ads, those who had poked fun at it began buying it. Beetle sales soared.
In another ad, Levenson devised a New Yorker-style cartoon – at a time of rising petrol prices – showing a man holding the nozzle of a petrol pump against his temple as though suicidal. The caption: “Or buy a Volkswagen.”
“The [VW] campaign became so popular that it has been imitated, mimicked, swiped, copied, misunderstood and admired more than any other campaign before or since,” Levenson wrote. The VW campaign was voted the best campaign of all time by Advertising Age magazine in 1999.
“Bob Levenson was probably the greatest copywriter ever to grace the English language, albeit in its Manhattan form,” according to Alfredo Marcantonio, one of Britain’s finest admen, co-founder and partner of the UK agency Holmes Hobbs Marcantonio and author of Remember Those Great Volkswagen Ads? “Despite the strong Jewish presence in New York City, his advertising charm helped sell a car, the Beetle, that was known in the trade as ‘Highly Hitler’. He became a major influence on people like David Abbott and Tony Brignull, two of the UK’s greatest-ever copywriters.”
Levenson also made his mark with his ads for Mobil and its “We Want You to Live” campaign. You might say the big oil company’s campaign was opportunistic or even cynical but Levenson’s print ad was effective and brilliant. Beneath a man embracing a young woman while driving his car was the caption: “Till death us do part.” Levenson also made a massive impression with his ads for the Israeli airline El Al. One had the headline “We’ve been in the travel business a long time” above a cartoon of animals going up the gangplank, two-by-two, on to Noah’s Ark. Another had the caption “My son, the pilot” and featured a Jewish mum expressing pride in the career of her son, an El Al pilot.
Levenson was famous among up-and-coming admen and women for advising them on how to write copy: “Start off with ‘Dear Charlie,’ then say ‘this is what I want to tell you about. Make believe that the person you’re talking to is a perfectly intelligent friend who knows less about the product than you do. Then, when you’ve finished writing the copy, just cross out ‘Dear Charlie’.”
Robert Harold Levenson was born in New York in 1929. He grew up in the Bronx in the wash of the Wall Street Crash, which would kill off advertising for the best part of two generations until the advent of television created a new market. After gaining bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English at New York University, he worked for the agency Scali, McCabe, Sloves Inc. before landing a job at DDB in 1959.
The following year, in response to a contest launched by Time to challenge ad agencies’ philosophies, he submitted a piece on behalf of DDB which would become part of adland folklore. Under the headline “Do This or Die” it read, in part: “Telling the truth about a product demands a product that’s worth telling about. Sadly, so many products aren’t… advertising only helps a bad product fail faster… unless we change, the tidal wave of consumer indifference will wallop into the mountain of advertising and manufacturing drivel. That way we die.” It was not only a breakthrough comment but, as we now know in these days when junk advertising vastly outnumbers creative ads, it was prescient.
After leaving DDB in 1986, Levenson held various executive positions with other agencies, including Saatchi & Saatchi, before retiring to the island of Useppa off the coast of Florida. Last April he married his third wife Jane, whom he had met when she was a copywriter at DDB. He died of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
Robert Harold Levenson, advertising executive: born New York 23 November 1929; married firstly Elaine Berk (divorced; two children), secondly Kathe Tanous (died), 2012 Jane Warshaw 2012 (one stepdaughter); died New York 16 January 2013.
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