Recently I spent an afternoon with one of my heroes, Ed McCabe.

Ed was, after Bill Bernbach, one of the most influential advertising people in New York.

Bill Bernbach introduced charming, intelligent advertising.

Ed introduced aggressive, intelligent advertising.

Two different schools, but both great.

One of the most powerful advertising campaigns of all time was DDB’s campaign for Avis, done by Helmut Krone.

Briefly, Hertz was by far the biggest car rental company.

Avis was just one of many smaller competitors.

Avis attacked Hertz by making a virtue of being smaller.

Avis portrayed Hertz as complacent.

The fat cat of car rental.

Avis were smaller so they couldn’t afford to be complacent.

“We Try Harder” became one of the greatest lines of all time.

It soon made Avis the second biggest car rental company in the US.

And it scared the daylights out of Hertz.

So Hertz changed ad agencies.

They went to Carl Ally, where Ed McCabe was working.

Ed’s ads took the same approach as Bill Bernbach’s: use your competitor’s strength against them.

DDB had managed to turn being the biggest into a negative.

Ed McCabe would turn being smaller into a negative.

Ed ran ads like: “For years Avis has been telling you that Hertz is number one. Now we’re going to tell you why”.

And: “If you had fewer cars, in fewer locations, what would you promise? Right: we try harder”.

And: “It’s the little dog that’s keeping the big dog on top”.

I recently saw a documentary about what happened when that campaign ran.

Bill Bernbach walked into Helmut Krone’s office.

He dropped the Hertz campaign on his desk and said “Look at this, as of today our Avis campaign is dead”.

And that was the real result of Ed McCabe’s advertising.

It managed to scare the daylights out of two of the greatest creatives who ever lived.

It scared them into scrapping the Avis campaign.

From then on they did “We Try Harder” without attacking Hertz.

When I was talking to Ed, he said he’d spoken about it afterwards to Helmut Krone.

He said to him “Why did you drop that campaign? You dropped it too fast, there were still years of life left in it, that was a great campaign”.

It was a relief to hear that, because that’s what I’d always thought.

But, because Krone and Bernbach were two of my heroes, I thought I must be wrong.

They must know something I didn’t.

Ed McCabe said “No, they were just wrong.They got scared”.

The Hertz campaign made the staff at Hertz feel good.

But it didn’t have anything like the traction with ordinary people that the Avis campaign had.

The Hertz campaign was appreciated by people in advertising.

But the Avis campaign was loved by people in the real world.

The power in Ed’s campaign was in scaring his competition into dropping a campaign that was working so brilliantly.

With power and aggression, he’d frightened the daylights out of Helmut Krone and Bill Bernbach.

And that’s a valuable lesson about advertising.


The target market isn’t always the target market.

Campaign Jobs