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.

  • Timm

    We all have heroes in advertising Dave; people we admire for their work and their insight. You’re one of mine. And I’m not even an ad man.

  • Dave Trott

    Thanks a lot Timm, especially as you’re not an ad man

  • paul c-c

    Well I didn’t know that. Thanks Dave.
    The danger of sitting in ivory towers out of touch with reality.

    • dave trott

      That was what amazed me Paul.
      The advertising didn’t have to work on consumers.
      It just had to scare the other agency into dropping a successful campaign.
      That’s a kind of advertising planners and clients know nothing about.

  • Irfan

    This is news to me. I never knew how the Avis campaign ended (We always only see the good parts). What was the documentary Dave?

  • Kev

    Hi Dave,
    How do you think the tactical rules of engagement have changed with so much money being spent online now with everybody living inside their own head? I see people every day in Moscow looking down. They look down at their Tablets, i phones, i pads, connected to the internet and disconnected to the planet playing number games or shooting fruit. I mean, it’s like advertising has moved from a broad 24/7 365 World Cup audience of “lets have a debate about biting players and the future of dentistry over a pint” to a personal edited narrow CCTV view where we only see what we and others are prepared to air or share. It makes you wonder whether online is really a permissive media or a restrictive controlled. For example: While the World Cup roars, on a terrorist faction has taken over half of Iraq in 3 days! Obviously to far lesser consequence, does this highlight the difference between Terrestial TV as Overt, and Online Broadband as a Covert operation? What would happen if the World Cup was online only? Would it have the same appeal? Personally, I doubt it. I believe there will come a day when people get fed up of getting red eye from staring at screens all day. It’s not healthy to live a virtual existence like in the end sequence of 2001 a Space Odyssey. Unlike James Bond, we only live once.

  • Siddharth Ray

    Hi Dave, I find it this story as one of the greatest. It is out right intriguing, we kept listening about it all through out our course. Also, am really glad my professors at Leeds Uni had a lot of good to say about it. Your posts are always educative, much thanks for it. I am back and work in India now, but sure do hope to work under you sometime (hopefully not in a distant future). Thanks for being the Bernbach and McCabe for the likes of us.

  • Jim Downie

    Once had as great meal with great man when he came to talk to our agency in Edinburgh. Still etched in my mind. Where are the people like him today?

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