The fine print

Alfredo Marcantonio pays tribute to one of the greatest copywriters of all time, Bob Levenson, who died last month.

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It was tragic irony that last week’s Campaign article regarding the rebirth of copy appeared a page or two away from the announcement of the death of one of its finest practitioners. Bob Levenson was probably the greatest copywriter ever to grace the English language, albeit in its Manhattan form. Both of Britain’s finest writers, David Abbott and Taony Brignull, were fans, as well as friends.

Bob arrived at Doyle Dane Bernbach in 1959, around the same time as the Volkswagen account. A year or so earlier, this Bronx-raised, 30-year-old direct-mail writer was scuttling to work on the New York subway when he had a "Damascus moment". On opening that morning’s New York Times, he was confronted by the "torn ocean" ad for El Al: "I immediately decided that whatever agency ran that ad was the place I wanted to work."

After multiple applications, he finally landed a job at DDB and went on to write an even more enduring advertisement for Israel’s airline: "my son, the pilot". A four-word headline that still earns attention and affection in equal measure today. "To fly. To serve" should be so lucky.

It had something of a "torn ocean" effect on Abbott, who had never considered a career as a copywriter until he read Tillie Katz’s words. A debt he repaid at Bob’s "Hall of Fame" tribute dinner by reciting the entire copy from memory.

Although the copywriting honours for the first few VW ads belong to Julian Koenig, it is Levenson’s 25-year tenure, as a copy chief and creative director on VW, that left the greater legacy. And saw him create many award-winning advertisements himself.

In contrast to his understated manner, Bob’s ads often took a no-holds-barred approach. One of his early successes was the house ad "do this or die". Half-a-century later, it remains the most powerful and convincing agency manifesto ever written.

And for Mobil’s road-safety campaign, he featured a man attempting to drive while embracing a young woman above the headline: "Till death us do part."

No DDB writer was closer to Bill Bernbach, a man he saw as an affectionate amalgam of father figure, elder brother, fellow writer, boss and friend. Not surprisingly, he was the person who the Bernbach family asked to deliver the eulogy at Bill’s memorial service in the United Nations Chapel in New York.

I’ll leave those interested to research Bob on the internet, where you will discover more of his work and hundreds of tributes from ad folk who he enchanted and encouraged. And I’ll leave the last words to Keith Reinhard, DDB’s chairman emeritus: "Bob was a creative giant who personally wrote and later inspired many of the legendary ads that made DDB the most-awarded agency of the 20th century."

Alfredo Marcantonio is a partner at Holmes Hobbs Marcantonio and the author of Remember Those Great Volkswagen Ads?