They Had Stories Then. Three From Bob Levenson, The Original Mad Man.

September 22, 2011

The headline that changed my life.

He is the writer behind the original Volkswagen ads of the sixties – from the agency that started advertising’s Creative Revolution, Doyle Dane Bernbach.

He was the rock-star, the master Jedi, the god who walked among us; a generation of dreamers who believed that advertising didn’t have to be dumbed-down or downright tedious.

Bob’s writing for Volkswagon and Avis was lean, smart, funny and inclusive; he invited us to participate in our own persuasion – and he made it fun, too.

I got to meet Bob Levenson when I was working in New York – he was still at DDB, still doing great work, even when he occasionally took on an assignment for P&G (which he would later call Proctor without the gamble).

So here are three of my favorite Bob Levenson stories. Stories from a time that exists only in, well, stories.

My first favorite. The Bob Levenson Schmuck Test.
Bob was having lunch in New York with Allan Kazmer, (whom, Bob announced, was the finest advertising man in Canada – of course he announced it to a waiter at the Four Seasons, but still).
It was at that lunch with Allan that Bob revealed the secret to determining whether or not you had headline gold: you take the headline; you drop the final period, and replace it with a comma and the word ‘schmuck.’
As in “Ever wonder how the man who drives the snowplow gets to the snowplow, schmuck?”
Or for Avis, “We’re Only Number 2, So We Try Harder, schmuck.”
Actually it’s not a half-bad little test, you should give it a try.
Schmuck.

Next favorite. Linen Lit.
I still laugh thinking about this one. It was late sixties, early seventies maybe. Bob was having lunch at some fabulous New York restaurant. Across the room, unseen by Bob, sat Ron Holland, another legendary writer and partner at Lois, Holland, Callaway. A drink or two into the lunch a waiter approached Bob’s table and presented him with a linen napkin – on it was scribbled a note:
“Bob. Don’t embarrass me. The big fork is for the meat, the little fork is for the salad. Ron.”

And…Meeting a hero.
Here’s the deal with Bob Levenson. Unlike the easy-going Bon Vivant that might seem to be at the other end of the typewiter, Bob is an entirely different cat. He’s a man of few words, most of them ironic. Effusive is not in his vocabulary.
Alas, it was in mine.
I was beside myself; I was actually meeting this supreme writer of writers. This writer who’s genius headline was tattooed permanently on my brain. “Think it over New York, Chicago, San Francisco.”
A headline I could hear Walter Winchell himself delivering.
The best headline ever written, that’s all.
And when I was finally done effusing about how his headline changed my life, there was only the stony face of Bob Levenson. Then this:
“So…did you read the copy?”

This entry was posted in The Stories.... Bookmark the permalink.
  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=508882018 Adrienne Anneau

    great story Joan! and a great idea for a blog I am eagerly awaiting the next one.

  • Howie

    Great stories, well told, thank you Joan.  That’s the Bob Levenson I remember.  Did you know he was related to Sam Levenson, one of the early Jewish comedian/storytellers?  They made wry wit and punchy punchlines seem as easy as eating meat with your salad fork. 

  • http://www.joanmcarthurtraining.com joan@joanmcarthurtraining.com

    Thanks Adrienne – been waiting too many years to finally write down the stories of my sketchy past…

  • Joan

    He told me about his uncle (?) Sam…yep, it all made sense. Thanks, Howie, and I promise to try not to beg anymore (don’t want to pressure you…)