'I just wrote some ads': Julian Koenig, the legendary copywriter behind Volkswagen’s 'Think small' campaign, looks back on his advertising career

Misplaced trust in Wikipedia recently saw The Drum’s editor at large Dave Birss writing an obituary for a man who is still alive. But given that the man in question is his copywriting hero, having penned, among other things, Volkswagen’s 1959 “Think small” ad and “Takes a licking and keeps on ticking” for Timex, never has he been so glad to be proven wrong. Here he catches up with legendary copywriter Julian Koenig and happily sets the record straight.

I recently posted an obituary on my blog, the first I’ve ever written. And, embarrassingly, I wrote it for a man who’s still alive.That man is Julian Koenig. He’s the legendary copywriter who penned Volkswagen’s ‘Think small’ ad and ‘Takes a licking and keeps on ticking’ for Timex. He’s the guy who was my biggest influence as a copywriter. And here’s me burying him before his time.Let me explain how I made such a mortifying faux-pas. I was listening to an episode of ‘This American Life’ that included a piece on Julian Koenig by his daughter Sarah. I was sitting in front of my laptop at the time, so out of curiosity I looked him up on Wikipedia, and his entry said that he’d died in August of this year. This was backed up by a number of death notices in US newspapers. However, the news didn’t seem to have been covered by any of the advertising journals.I thought that Julian deserved a respectful sendoff. So I contacted Sarah to see if she would be willing to help me put a piece together for The Drum. That’s when I found out that Wikipedia was wrong. Those death notices were for another Julian Koenig. The Julian Koenig who was at the centre of the creative revolution is very much alive. Possibly for the first time in my life I felt a strange combination of embarrassment and happiness. But now that the communication channels were open, I wanted to talk to him more than ever.After all, Julian was the man who showed me what good copywriting was. He was the first copywriter I ever knew the name of. And I must have read his ads hundreds of times over the years. They were so pure and charming and beautifully written. Together with Helmut Krone, Julian was responsible for kicking-off the original Volkswagen campaign. His writing was effortless and selfdeprecating – a reflection of the car and a reaction to the pompous puffery of American car advertising at the time. And all the legendary copywriters who followed in his footsteps kept to the exquisite tone that he’d set from the start. That level of writing was what I aspired to throughout my whole career. Whether I ever attained it is debatable. When I started the Future of Advertising Podcast, I put together a list of people I would love to interview. Julian Koenig was on that list. Somewhere near the top, in fact. However, when I tried to find out how to get in touch with him, everyone told me that it was hopeless; I’d never be able to talk to him. Julian didn’t do interviews. So instead, I racked up interviews with lots of other industry heroes.One of the other legends that I interviewed was George Lois, Julian’s former business partner and long-time nemesis. They had left Doyle Dane Bernbach (DDB) together to form their own agency, Papert Koenig Lois, in 1960. But after the agency came to an end a decade later, the two men fell into a dispute over who had been responsible for the work. At one point, after George had published the book ‘$ellebrities’, Julian was so irritated by George taking full credit for what he was sure were his ideas that he attempted to run an ad in the New York Times with the headline ‘Low, Lower, Lois’. The newspaper refused to run it but he did manage to get Adweek to put it somewhere near the back of the magazine. Now that’s what I call an argument! And so far I’d only managed to speak to the character on one side of it. Thanks to Sarah, I now had the opportunity to redress the balance, although she doubted he’d be up for an interview. I plucked up the courage and made a transatlantic phone call to the writer of the ad of the century (the last century, that is – according to Ad Age). He’s 92 and he asked me to speak up. So I raised my voice slightly and asked him if he’d be happy to talk to me about his life in advertising. “I’m not interested in entering into more wars with George.” I imagine that’s what he’s been asked about most often in recent years. He’s not as public as George, so he’s unlikely to win the PR battle. I can understand him wanting to let it lie. But I persevered. I decided to bypass advertising for now and asked him about what he feels have been his big achievements through his life. “Oh, I’ve had no big achievements; just some advertising.” But that’s not exactly true. He apparently invented thumb wrestling. I asked him about it. “I believe I did. I was a camp supervisor for a boys camp. We went through leg wrestling, arm wrestling and what was left? So I invented thumb wrestling.” That’s quite a claim to fame. And it doesn’t end there. He also co-owned a baseball team in the 50s. And – most interestingly – he threw in his copywriting career at one point to become a professional gambler. He had worked for a number of years at an underwhelming agency where he couldn’t get a good ad through. “I had this fear of becoming the world’s oldest living copywriter,” he said. So he quit. “I was introduced to a system for beating the horses. Of course, I’d never thought that you could beat horses. I finally got leave from the agency to work on a book. They accepted that I was a writer so they gave me a leave of absence – but actually it was a bookmaker’s book! That was the year 1958. “I supported my wife and two children. I made more money doing that than I had in advertising. And the only reason I left was that I got an offer from Doyle Dane Bernbach; the only agency I wanted to work at. So I did it and the rest is what you call history.” Now we were onto the subject of advertising! I’ve always wanted to know what it was like working at DDB in those days, and if Bill Bernbach lived up to the myth, so I asked him what he was like to work with.“He gave me a hard time. My first ad, he had me redo about five times. Driving me crazy! I’m sure he didn’t look at any of the Volkswagen ads directly with me. I’m sure he saw them from the account people. I can’t say that I worked with him.” That came as a bit of a surprise to me. I’d imagined that Bill Bernbach had been deeply involved in the groundbreaking Volkswagen work. But it didn’t look that way. So did it feel like the Volkswagen work was groundbreaking at the time? “You’re asking me to go back a long way. This is 1959 we’re talking about.... No, I just wrote some ads. But the reaction was very strong. So in that sense I gleaned that we were breaking new ground. But, you know, this is a peculiar industry and a lot of it is about being capable of knowing what is good and bad. That year – ‘59 – there was voting by my fellow advertising people, including a lot of heads of agencies, on the best ads of the year. And the best auto advertising was deemed to be not Volkswagen but Renault! Which had cars with bubbles and balloons emanating from their sun roofs – sort of a frivolous campaign. But that was voted the best car advertising of ‘59 – not Volkswagen.”So I asked him to tell me about the ‘Think small’ ad he wrote – the one ad that defined the creative revolution. (If you want to know more about how the ad was created, I recommend the fascinating little book ‘Think Small’ by Dominik Imseng.) “It was just symbolic of the campaign. The campaign was the hero. I did about eight ads. And it was continued at a very high level.” Yet again, Julian downplayed his role with quiet humility. I can see why he hasn’t been able to compete with George Lois’ confident claims. Julian is the dictionary definition of a gentleman. So more than 50 years have passed since the ad that gave Julian his place in history. I wanted to know what he thought of today’s advertising. Had it fulfilled the dream? Was it everything they could have hoped for? “Well it’s an arena that’s completely foreign to me. Advertising’s changed. I think there’s too much happening.” So I guess the answer would be ‘no’ then. Finally, as a copywriter who’s inspired several generations, I was keen to find out who had inspired Julian. And this is where our stories coincide. Both of us started our careers at little agencies of no significance. Neither of us could get a decent ad out. But both of us discovered the copywriters who would influence our approach to writing. One of my colleagues told me about Julian, while one of Julian’s colleagues told him about another great writer. “He introduced me to the great direct response writer from the ‘20s, the guy who wrote ‘they laughed when I sat down at the piano’.”John Caples? “Yes Caples. That’s him.” At that point our stories diverge. Julian went on to write some of the most iconic ads of our time. And I didn’t. But my unreserved thanks go to him for giving me such a high standard to aim for. And for the record, I couldn’t be happier that Wikipedia was wrong.This article first appeared in the 13 December issue of The Drum. Click here to order your copy

Dave Birss

I used to be an advertising Creative Director. Now I'm on a mission to demystify creativity. I do that by writing, speaking, broadcasting and consulting.

I’m the founder of RIGHTthinking.co - which helps businesses get to more effective ideas more effectively.

I’m the editor of OpenforIdeas.org - an online magazine that explores creativity and innovation in business.

I was the writer, director and presenter of the TV series, The Day Before Tomorrow.

I'm the author of A User Guide to the Creative Mind. And have a couple of other books in the pipeline.

You can often find me debunking creative myths on stage at conferences all over the world.

All by Dave