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November 13, 2013 / davebirss

UPDATED: Hello Julian Koenig – the copywriting king


UPDATE: This post was originally titled ‘Farewell Julian Koenig – the copywriting king’. However, it seems that I’m somewhat premature in declaring Julian’s demise. His Wikipedia entry was erroneously updated by someone who’d seen an obituary for another Julian Koenig! I only discovered this after contacting his daughter, Sarah, who reliably informed me that her father is alive and well! But rather than deleting this post, I want to leave it to celebrate the great man. And maybe – just maybe – I’ll still get that interview with him!

I’ve only just found out about the passing of Julian Koenig, the copywriter behind Volkswagen’s ‘Think Small’ ad, Timex’s ‘Takes a licking and keeps on ticking’ work and lots more legendary ads from the creative revolution. We lost him on August 29th of this year.

The man was a legend who influenced an entire industry for decades. In fact, according to his Wikipedia listing, Jerry Della Famina once wrote “I spent my first five years in this business trying to emulate Mr. Koenig. I wasn’t alone. Ask any top copywriter who he followed early in his career and almost to a man, they’ll mention Julian Koenig.”

And even in the 90s, when I started as a copywriter, his influence continued on this side of the Atlantic in a crappy ad agency in Glasgow.

If I have any regret from the last couple of years, it would be not getting an interview with him for the podcast. Or even just a chat with him that you lot couldn’t eavesdrop on!

One of the things that interested me in recent years was the disagreement between Julian and George Lois. Having interviewed George and heard his stories, I’d love to have given Julian the opportunity to balance things out. If you want more of an insight into the situation, I recommend listening to this wonderful piece by his daughter Sarah for This American Life (skip to 7:30 to listen to the segment).


Most of us advertising creatives would die happy knowing that we’d produced work that echoes through time in the way that Julian did. But clearly he didn’t feel quite the same way.

Towards the end of the segment, he says:

“Advertising is built on puffery and hard deception and I don’t think anyone can go proudly into the next world with a career based on deception, no matter how well they do it.”

That’s pretty hard-hitting stuff for anyone still making their living in the world of advertising.

Instead of being the ‘Think Small’ guy, it seems that Julian would prefer to be remembered for the environmental work he did with Earth Day. That seems a far more worthy legacy to leave behind.

Here are a few of his reminiscences from a few years ago:

And I’d like to leave you with an excerpt from a speech he did in 1961 for The Advertising Writers Club in New York. He gives us his response to four questions he was being asked. And – not surprisingly – most of what he says is completely relevant to the industry more than 50 years on. Particularly points number three and four.

“ONE. Why did I leave Doyle Dane Bernbach with George Lois to join Fred Papert and start an agency?

Because I was crazy.

After all, Lois and I had the best jobs in advertising.

Logic was completely against it.

We should have been bankrupt within a month.

But we weren’t.

Twenty-two months ago, in January 1960, we had one account that billed—we thought-two hundred and fifty thousand.

Today we have 17 accounts that do about sixteen million.

So my advice to you is this. If you like what you are doing, quit and start an advertising agency.

TWO. What is our creative philosophy?

Rosser Reeves has a creative philosophy and it is enormously successful. Mr. Ogilvy has a creative philosophy and it is brilliantly tabulated.

What is our creative philosophy ?

We have none.

All we do is make ads.

THREE. Multi-million dollar budgets.

I have nothing against big spenders.

In fact I like them.

I would much rather a client gave us his successes and spared us his challenges. But it is true that million-dollar budgets are frequently used as a substitute for good advertising. I have heard too often that advertisers must wait for the cumulative impact of a campaign to take effect.

Nonsense. The only ad that we’ll run is an ad that has an immediate effect – even if it’s only someone writing to say “that was the worst ad I’ve ever seen.”

In fact the first ad we ever ran was this mother-in-law ad for the LADIES’ HOME JOURNAL, We did it rather tongue in cheek but people reacted intensely.

People either liked it or disliked it, according to their relations with their mothers-in-law.

But as the advertising manager at the JOURNAL said “At least we heard from people for the first time in years.”

I want an ad that people will notice and react to.

I want people to be involved. If a client says “Well, we’ll offend someone,” I answer, “Well, there are even people who disliked Eisenhower.”

If you are alive, you’ve got to offend someone.

But of course if you’re not, you won’t. But by the same token, when you do offend some people, you are going to move and exhilarate others.

If we let copy research dictate whether we should or should not run ads, we would be out of business.

If I found copy research that showed no one disliked an ad, without seeing the ad I would say don’t run it. It’s got to be anonymous milk-toast waste. When we run an advertisement, we are using someone else’s money and we take good care of it.

After all, it costs exactly the same money to run an ad in LIFE that no one looks at as an ad that everyone looks at.

People have an astonishing ability to ignore dull advertising.

The true economy – the best use of a client’s money is to run an ad that people look at.

FOUR. Creativity.

A lot of bad advertising is being palmed off today in the name of creativity.

There is simply no excuse for advertising that shows the ingenuity of the copywriter and not the merit of the product.

Yet magazines and newspapers and television are filled with a kind of clever clap-trap which masquerades as creativity.

I saw that Richard Manoff recently in pitching for a new account made up a variety of so-called clever creative ads to demonstrate that the Manoff Agency could do them as well as anyone.

All he demonstrated was that he could do them as badly as anyone. Advertising is ideas about products, whether you call these ideas unique selling propositions or what have you.

Advertising that doesn’t stem from unique ideas about the product is not advertising but self- indulgence.

What is the job of creativity?

To take individual ideas and to transform them into simple direct and pungent statements.

And that may call for a page full of copy.

If a product has legitimate news, state it.

If a product has no news. go in for showmanship.”

Thank you Julian, from all of us who’ve tried and failed to follow in your footsteps.

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