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Julian Koenig and me: A tribute to one of advertising's greatest copywriters

Julian Koenig: 1921 – 2014

On June 12, Julian Koenig died at the age of 93.

He was a genuine giant of advertising who’d transformed my life at least five years before we met in 1967.

Ditching intentions of becoming a full-time novelist, instead he became a copywriter at Doyle Dane Bernbach, soon to be the hottest agency that ever was.

When the Doyle, Dane creative team was confronted with the Volkswagen Beetle brief, they responded: “You expect us to sell a Nazi car in a Jewish town?" (Koenig was acutely aware that the Jewish response to Third Reich atrocities was a worldwide boycott of German).

And it’s not as though the Beetle was otherwise devoid of drawbacks: to Detroit-conditioned eyes, the almost chrome-free car looked insubstantial, alien, deformed and ugly.

Launching a foreign brand that raises irrational prejudices has never been the easiest trick in the business.

But if anyone was up to the task, it was Koenig and Helmut Krone, his perfectionist, Bauhaus-trained art director.

Even the zeitgeist was favourable.

Among the U.S. thinking classes, Detroit was considered hidebound and reactionary, increasingly dented by sinister accusations of ‘planned obsolescence’ and Ralph Nader’s “Unsafe at any Speed” (a polemic which castigated General Motors and their lethal Chevrolet Corvair).

If Detroit was a highly convenient whipping boy, so was its advertising.

Before the Beetle launch, most U.S. automobile ads were pretentious, bombastic or grossly sentimental and campaigns were characterised by crass jingles, bogus over-claim, huge logos and clamorous slogans.

Koenig and Krone followed a different route.

Radically reshaping the architecture of print advertising, they demolished negative perceptions with spare, uncluttered graphics, crisp photography and hip humour (the antithesis of Detroit’s hysterical hype and distended illustrations).

The VW logo was tiny, in grey half-line.

There was no slogan.

Fascinating fact: Koenig actually owned a Beetle, placing him in the tiny minority of U.S. citizens actually familiar with the car and its idiosyncracies.

Clearly, familiarity bred affection and shaped his approach.

He wrote with economy and wit in a flow that was effortlessly readable.

His logical arguments were taken to crisp conclusions in plain English, shorn of adjectives and laced with Lower East Side humour (later more famous through Woody Allen shtick).

And instead of the conventional list of benefits by the dozen, each ad made a single selling point.

Each negative aspect was flipped into a credible positive virtue: ‘small’ signified ‘economical’; ‘ugly’ was transmuted into fashion-proof ‘timeless’; ‘beetle shape’ became shorthand for ‘long-lasting and reliable’.

Addressing New Yorker-reading graduates, the Beetle was promoted as the rational alternative to Detroit’s unreliable gas-guzzlers.

For me, two of the original ads, 'Think Small' and 'Lemon', are the most incisive and influential pieces of copy ever written.

Ever.

But, in his work for the Beetle, Koenig invented a fresh, understated way of writing copy that was intelligent, lucid and frequently LOL funny.

His sympathetic advocacy looked effortless but, as Bob Garfield observed in Advertising Age, it was all to a purpose, “to be amused by Koenig’s copy was to be flattered by it”.

Surreptitiously, the campaign enlisted readers’ antipathy towards sloppy American engineering, recycling resentment towards Germany into anti-Detroit sentiment (the country of origin is never mentioned anywhere in the campaign though, 60 years later, the brand has invested in a strapline: ‘Das Auto’.)

Over the next 20 years, the Beetle became the emblem of American non-conformity.

Ultimately, in 1999, Advertising Age voted the Volkswagen campaign “the greatest of the 20th century” (more recently, Mad Men made its own oblique tribute by showing the launch ads confounding the crowd at Sterling Cooper).

In the sixties in London, as a lone Jewish writer at uber-WASP Mather & Crowther (later, Ogilvy), I was in thrall to Koenig’s influence before even knowing his name.

His ads, ripped from the New Yorker, were pinned above my desk (though not to universal admiration).

Deeply susceptible to his New York Yiddish resonances, I tried to absorb his laid-back stance.

Simply being aware of Koenig’s work was like being inducted into an informal London Advertising Liberation Front (I recall a samizdat that circulated satirising how 'Think Small' could be improved 25 ways by injecting clichés until, inevitably, it morphs into a conventional Detroit ad).

I was aware of at least half-a-dozen copy writers whose subsequent stellar careers were based on close examination of his style, much like apprentice watchmakers inspecting a fine precision movement.

Meanwhile, somewhere over cocktails in Manhattan, account director Fred Papert persuaded Koenig to join him and volcanic art director George Lois to form Papert Koenig Lois (PKL), an uncompromising outfit that produced a succession of groundbreaking campaigns (despite increasing tension between Koenig and Lois).

For Harvey Probber, a client who produced meticulously-made furniture, Lois photographed one of their chairs standing uneasily on gleaming parquet.

One leg, however, was supported by a folded piece of cardboard.

Koenig’s copy read: “If your Harvey Probber chair wobbles, straighten your floor.”

Beat that.

My attempts to insert Koenig’s style into my ads singularly failed to ignite the reactionaries at Mather & Crowther.

But PKL, London (glossy floors, dark cork walls, skeletal palm trees and minimalist furnishing) had arrived in Knightsbridge where, in 1967, creative director Peter Mayle proved more receptive by hiring me and gifted Australian art director, Bob Marchant (now a major painter in Bundeena, N.S.W.).

“Does Julian Koenig ever visit?” I asked, eager to meet my absent guru. “Yes”, came the reply, “when he wants a new wife” (his then wife had worked in PKL London’s media department).

But eventually he came to visit, resembling a tweedy Ivy League professor rather than a giant.

Reflecting his copy, he was exactly as I’d anticipated: charming, disarming and smart.

I shook the hand of the man who’d taught me all I knew.

And he was graciously complimentary about ads that Bob and I had produced.

But, on that visit, he left the media department intact.

Olav ha-shalom (Hebrew for R.I.P.), Julian Koenig.

And thanks.

Leonard Weinreich is CEO of Wordbright.com and is still writing lots of copy

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