Bernbach was the son of a clothing designer, and as a boy he was interested in art and wrote verse. He was educated in New York public schools and earned a B.A. degree from New York University. His first job was in the mail room of Schenley Distillers. While there, he wrote an advertisement for Schenley and sent it unsolicited to the advertising department. In due course the ad was recognized as having merit, but its origin had been lost. It was inserted—verbatim—in The New York Times. Bernbach saw the ad and quickly claimed authorship to Schenley’s chairman, Lewis Rosenstiel, who gave him an immediate salary increase and transferred him to the advertising department. He worked for other agencies and began to develop an interest in advertising graphics.
After U.S. Army service in World War II, Bernbach joined Grey Advertising as a copywriter, and it was there that he met Ned Doyle. The two joined forces with Maxwell Dane in 1949 to form Doyle Dane Bernbach. Their first account was a bargain department store in need of a new image. Bernbach’s campaign created a fashionable, sophisticated image and made the store’s name, Ohrbach’s, a watchword. One of his most successful campaigns was for Volkswagen automobiles: “Think small.” He turned the Avis car rental company’s second rank in its industry into an asset by claiming that Avis “tries harder.” A writer from the start, Bernbach was in charge of the agency’s creative activities, aiming always to create advertising that was fresh and original. For years he alone approved each campaign before it was presented to a client.
After stepping down as president of Doyle Dane Bernbach in 1967, Bernbach assumed the position of chairman of the board, and later chairman of the executive committee, a position he held at his death in 1982.