Phyllis K. Robinson – Looking Back on a Legend

Bill Bernbach. David Ogilvy. Leo Burnett. When I think back to the ‘Mad Men’ era, these fine gentlemen instantly pop up in my head. They were smart chaps and very few would disagree to that.

But among the advertising greats of the last century, I prefer to remember the late Phyllis K. Robinson – “the first lady of Madison Avenue’s creative revolution,” as she was dubbed by the Financial Times following her passing nearly a decade ago.

I first read about her when I was a wee copywriter nine years ago and her story grabbed my attention instantly.

 
 

Robinson was born in New York in 1921, and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree from Barnard College in 1942 studying sociology. She landed her first job in advertising at Bresnick & Solomont in 1946.

This was a time when agencies were filled with nicotine, booze, and well, men. And while some might rightly note how difficult the ad world was for a woman in those days, Robinson was anything but the norm. She was brave enough to brush aside the prevalent sexism of the era and clear a path for herself straight to the top.

If that doesn’t speak volumes of her character, I’m not sure much else will. But there’s so much more.

 
 

Fast forward to 1947 when she joined Grey Advertising as a Junior Copywriter hired by the legendary Bill Bernbach. Robinson had a rebellious creative spirit just like Bernbach.

Case in point, one of her more famous quotes: “We throw out the rules every day and make up our own”. That’s pretty much every creative’s official motto nowadays.

DDB team in the late 60’s (Image via DDB)

Crossing paths with Bernbach was fortuitous for them both. He was the one who recognized the creative spark in Robinson, once again challenging convention. That might, perhaps, sound a bit distasteful but back then, it was unusual for women to fill creative roles.

When Bernbach left Grey two years later to start DDB, along with Ned Doyle and Mac Dane, Robinson was invited to come along and become one of the founding employees.

“Do the kind of work nobody else is doing.”

The next few years to follow were the start of one of the great creative revolutions, with DDB making Madison Avenue history for the way they created ads.

Robinson enjoyed equal success too and quickly rose to become DDB’s first woman Copy Chief and helped set the modern agency template of pairing Art Directors and Copywriters to work as a team. 

“An important part of my personal style of direction and teaching was to encourage every one in his own idiom, in his own personal way of doing things”, Robinson once said. “There would be no point in having many, many little Bill Bernbachs and Phyllis Robinsons, a sort of assembly-line product. Instead, we have all these wonderful strains of all these people intermingling.”

“Of course we didn’t really have the great sense of pioneering that we have in retrospect. It was more like kids being let out of school,” Phyllis told a Japanese publication in 1971.

Indeed, this was her leadership style, to empower her employees and let them run free with ideas and creativity.

Robinson managed a talented creative collective and one of her stern instructions to those she led was, “Do the work that no one else is doing.” Sure enough, Robinson built a star-studded department that boasted the likes of future legends like Mary Wells, Julian Koenig and Paula Green.

What drew me in

For me, it was Robinson’s own work, especially her knack for conversational writing that piqued my interest. It’s important to keep in mind that back then this style of creativity was practically unheard of so one can only imagine the added challenge that came with it.

One notable instance was her campaign for Henry S. Levy and Sons, which featured visuals of people from different ethnicities along with the headline ‘You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s Real Jewish Rye’.

And there was also the long-running campaign for Polaroid, which featured popular actors James Garner and Mariette Hartley. The light-hearted exchanges between the pair and the casual tone in which they described the camera’s features led the audience into believing that they were an actual married couple.

The spots showed how much power conversational writing could have with consumers. More than the campaign alone, the product itself became memorable. It was one of those win-win situations for both the agency and the brand.

“It was great fun to work on, very challenging, with all sorts of new products, Robinson said in an interview with The New York Times in 2006 on the occasion of a tribute to the Polaroid campaign put on by the Museum of Television and Radio.

Even today, this would be an effective way to build brands and drive business growth. I think we can all take a leaf out of her book knowing that customers are often immune to advertising in today’s world, and by speaking to them with honesty and truth, we can elicit a far better response than the selfish stuff we churn out at times – all in the name of creativity

“There would be no point in having many, many little Bill Bernbachs and Phyllis Robinsons, a sort of assembly-line product. Instead, we have all these wonderful strains of all these people intermingling.”

Robinson continued on a path of great work for years to come. She was inducted into the ‘Creative Hall of Fame’ in 1968, where, for a time, she served as Chairperson. In 1999, Advertising Age named her one of the ‘100 most influential figures in the history of advertising’.

Even with such an enviable list of achievements, her greatest feat to my surprise wasn’t an award or a trophy. She laid the foundation for DDB and Volkswagen’s partnership that’s still going strong after all these years.  

When DDB introduced the VW Beetle with “Lemon” and ‘Think Small’, Creative Directors looked at it with shock and awe because it overturned so many ad conventions.

Even more interesting was the hidden truth behind this classic ad – one which is rarely told, and it involved Robinson.

Keith Reinhard, Chairman Emeritus of DDB, brought this to light after her passing in 2010. Apparently, legendary carmakers, Volkswagen, did not conduct an agency survey when they were about to launch the German car to post-war America. 

Instead, the carmaker simply said, “We want the agency that does Ohrbach’s”.

Ohrbach’s back then was a popular chain of department stores in America. They closed in 1986 but Robinson’s work for them was what the good folks at Volkswagen really loved.

Of course, this eventually led to the conception of the world’s most iconic ad campaigns featuring the simple, but incredibly effective “Lemon” and “Think Small” slogans. 

The Swan Song

In 1962, Robinson stepped down from her role as Copy Chief and began working a three-day week. She eventually retired from DDB in 1982 but continued to be a consultant for over a decade. She eventually passed away on the last day of the year, December 31, 2011, at 89 years old.

Throughout her career, she was known to be respectful of her audience, her clients, and perhaps most importantly, her peers. She set a tone at DDB that we (including myself working here now) so fondly love.

Today, I can proudly say that we have countless women in our agency and our network. Trailblazers who, like Robinson,  play a crucial role in the ongoing evolution of DDB culture and adding to its diversity.

For many of you who enjoy advertising history, I hope this was a fairly amusing biography mixed with an advertising history retrospect like it was for me when I started delving into Robinson’s story. It is my hope that this will serve to honor the creative genius who gave it all before quietly leaving us nearly a decade ago.

Here’s to you, Phyllis K. Robinson. Thank you for everything.

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