It's 1962 in America, and the car rental market is pretty simple, Hertz are the leaders in the market by a country mile. Avis was failing, it had only 11% market share and hadn't made a profit in 13 years.
Avis appointed maverick businessman Robert Townsend as CEO, tasking him with turning the company around. One of the first things Townsend did was to call Bill Bernbach at Doyle Dane Bernbach, his plea: "How do we get five dollar's worth of impact for every dollar we spend?"
In answer, Bernbach demanded that they got 90 days to learn about the business, that Avis run every ad without changing a thing, and that they didn't run any advertising until they'd got their actual service up to scratch.
Bernbach put art director Helmut Krone and writer Paula Green on the project, and the team set about finding out as much as they could about Avis and its people.
What they created was an idea that broke the mould of advertising. To give it some context, Hertz's were running ads like this at the time...
Krone, Green and Bernbach created a solution that was, like all great advertising, strategy and creative idea in one, and firmly rooted in something truthful. "Avis is only No.2 in rent a cars. So we try harder". It was an amazingly simple idea that sprung from their conversations with staff at Avis. The honesty of the idea, and the writing was powerful. And it made sense - Avis had to do everything better than Hertz to win customers. This didn't feel like advertising flim flam, but a truthful message from a company to the consumer. And amazingly, at the same time, it also managed to position the massive, strong market leader as complacent and sloppy.
Krone (who was previously responsible for the look of the Volkswagen campaign) created a strong look for the campaign based on large headlines and copy, and small images. The ads were unmistakably Avis, but didn't have a logo. Their great branding came from the fact that the ads were, from start to finish, all about Avis and their message. There was no creative fluff, no cleverness for the sake of it. Just great communication. Krone made simple, editorial pages that demanded to be read.
The key things about this campaign were a strong, truthful advertising idea, a great tone of voice (self-effacing, smart) and strong, simple art direction.
A lot of modern advertising suffers from some common things that generally don't help; thinking that advertising strategy is a separate thing from the advertising idea, trying to have the advertising idea before you get the creatives involved, trying to fit everything into every execution, two 'leaps' - interesting strategic idea complicated by a separate creative idea, over-complication at any stage, creatives trying to be too 'clever', mistaking big logos and brand guidelines for good branding, and worst of all - lack of balls.
The Avis campaign is something good to always refer back to if you think you're suffering at the hands of any of those things. It has a purity of thought and execution that a lot of today's marketing lacks. Of course, none of that would matter if the campaign wasn't commercially successful. Within one year of the campaign breaking Avis was making a profit. And by 1966 Avis' market share was 35% - over three times bigger than before Townsend and Bernbach got involved.
That, my friends, is Advertising Greatness.
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