A Word About Bob



I'm sure you have a Bob Levenson story in you. Write.
–Dom

An art director writing about Bob Levenson.....yeah, right.......that's a funny story right there.
–John

Not a bad idea to write about how an art director has the balls to write a story about a great writer.
–Dom

OK, and while I'm at it I'll write a couple of violin concertos and a best selling novel.
–John

Back when I was in art school out on the frontier at the University of Michigan, I had to write the copy
for the ads I was making for my book. Good luck finding someone who could spell let alone write a
whole sentence in an art school. To figure out how to write I used a powerful magnifying glass to read
the body copy in Volkswagen ads and other ads I liked in award books and issues of Art Direction
magazine I somehow managed to get my hands on out in Michigan. It was easier to find pornography
or comic books in the university libraries than materials about how to create great advertising in those
days and probably still is today. Then I'd just try to write my copy so it sounded like it was written by
the same person.

It didn't take me long to figure out that all the great ads I liked were coming from a place called Doyle,
Dane, Bernbach and that the absolute best were written by a guy named Robert Levenson.

"Well, at least, the copy's pretty good" was the usual reaction to my work. Still, I did manage to get an
A. That's because, in art school, everyone gets an A no matter what. Either because the professor
liked the work or, more likely, he/she did not want to get you back next semester, no matter what.

About a year after I graduated, I found myself sitting behind a drawing board with, get this, a steel tee
square (I had no idea what it was for) wearing a tie in the Doyle, Dane, Bernbach bullpen.

About a year after that, I found myself working on an incredibly small ad with an actual writer who, I'm
embarrassed to say, I'm so old I can't remember. One day he/she said to me, "OK, we have to go see
Bob to get this approved.

"Bob?" "Yeah, Bob Levenson." "ROBERT LEVENSON!!!!!!!!!"

Shortly, I found myself sitting in the little anteroom outside Robert H. Levenson's
office holding a small piece of cardboard with the requisite blue flap over our precious ad
which was about the size of a postage stamp. I felt a lot like what I imagine Marie Antoinette felt just
before, well, you know what.

I walked through the door into the biggest office I'd ever seen. And, to my horror, I discovered
something very alarming. There was no air in Robert H. Levenson's office! Suddenly, I knew what a
fish feels like when he's tossed onto dry land.

The rest is a kind of blur. To my surprise, everything went well, Robert H. Levenson graciously asked
me not to call him "Mr. Levenson" but, rather, "Bob." He explained that he was pleased to meet me,
had heard good things about me, was glad I was a part of the Doyle, Dane, Bernbach organization,
and looked forward to getting to know me better. Then he and the writer began to laugh and talk
about things that I could not comprehend using the English language in ways I had never heard or
read before for what seemed like eons while I tried to get along without air.

I am an art director. I can't help it, and there's nothing that can be done about it. To people like me,
the only purpose of words is that they are there to be set in type. Or delivered by actors and voice
over artists.

Art directors don't understand writers. How do they do that? Where do they get the words and how do
they string them together? How do you come up with something that cannot even be seen? Yes, we
are moved by them. Sometimes to tears; after all, we are human. And nobody, but nobody, loves
humor and a good joke or appreciates it more than an art director. Don't tell anyone, but our jokes are
always a lot funnier than anything the writers come up with. It's just that, when it comes to writing,
well, we just can't do it.

Art directors use words the way mechanics use screwdrivers and ball peen hammers. If you tagged
along to a meeting where a creative team was seeking approval from one of DDB's senior art
directors like, say, the greatest of all, Bob Gage or, heaven help you, Helmut Krone, you would hear
words like, "too contrasty", "fix the layout", "how about 18point Bodoni", "who shot this", "dial down the
red", "picas", "what's with that mix", "like that rough cut", etc., etc. You know, stuff that makes sense.
You'd also notice that the writer usually started drifting towards the door and then disappeared.

Some human beings are male. Some are female. There are male art directors, and there are female
art directors. There are female writers, and there are male writers. But there are no art directors who
are writers. And there are no writers who are art directors. Sure, sometimes we'd get kinky and fool
around with trans discipline aberrant kind of stuff, but, it never really sticks. It's fun, but, sooner or
later, it doesn't work any more.

Writers and art directors are just plain different. If you don't believe me, go back to the day and be a
fly on the wall in an art director's office while a creative team is at work. You should pick the art
director's office because nine times out of ten that's where the team met to work even though the
writers had much nicer offices with things like plants, maybe a couch or two and pictures on the wall
instead of push pins and layouts taped to them with type specimen books and photographers' books
strewn all over the place along with giant pads of paper, chunks of cardboard, torn up tissue layouts
and chopped up photostats, creaky drawing boards piled high with rubber cement cans and razor
blades and flat file cabinets taking up half the room.

You'll find the art director is hunched over the drawing board with one of his rubber cement cans (the
writer has taken the others to the other side of the room because he/she loves to pull off the globs of
dried rubber cement on the top and sides of the can and roll them into little bouncy balls) and is
slicing up little itty bitty bits of type with a razor blade and moving them around. Or else he's
struggling to finish a layout or story board with dried out magic markers (the writer loves to doodle
with magic markers and always leaves the top off—in case you don't know it, a magic marker will dry
out in the blink of an eye). Or else he's screaming into the phone at some photographer, engraver,
commercial director, location scout, casting agent, retoucher, or his tailor.

You'll find the writer on the other phone line or, more likely, by the door chatting with other writers
about, the latest sale at Bloomingdale's, shoes (men's and women's are VERY important and
dependant on which sex is doing the talking—ditto for ties, dresses, suits etc.), where to have lunch,
last night at the movies, opera, ballet, ball game, etc., or, most likely of all, who's seeing who in the
office and what they are (supposedly, usually) up to, etc., etc., etc.

Shortly, the writer will drift away to visit with writers at the doors of other art directors' offices or go to
lunch with a friend or film rep. The art director will just keep on slicing, scribbling or screaming until
late at night.

But, I digress.....

As the years rolled by I increasingly found myself in Bob's office usually accompanied by Jane
Talcott or Diane Rothschild. Gradually, I became used to breathing in a room with no air. They would
allow me to present the work and listen curiously while I described the visual elements and issues of
the work before us. They would even sometimes engage me in witty banter and express appropriate
awe if I pointed out some important artistic element or mentioned that someone like Helmut had approved of what we were up to. And then they would start to talk. They would come up with witticisms
the likes of which I couldn't even fathom. They would talk in codes such that I had no idea what on
earth they were talking about or why it was important. They would dissect language, its meaning and
who had said what about what when and why it was ingenious and how to make it more ingenious. In
short, they would do to words what Calder did to wire and Rembrandt to paint. All I could do was sit
there and listen. It was like going to the opera or listening to Isaac Stern. I couldn't make head or tail
of half of what was going on, but it sounded so beautiful I wanted to both laugh and cry at once.
However, I kept a firm grip on myself because I figured it would definitely be the wrong thing to do.

Occasionally, I'd get called to Bob's office solo. He might want to hear what I had to say about
something visual or, once in a very rare while, something that was on his mind. Or to give me a raise
or a promotion or tell me about something that was going to change. Once he told me that he had
played the mandolin, and I mentioned that I had played the violin. That's the closest we ever came to
talking about anything we had in common other than our love for DDB and great work.

Bob was very, very good to me. He and Kathe came to our apartment to visit our new born daughter,
June, and never batted an eye that the only furniture we had was folding aluminum lawn chairs from
Lamston's. They did the same when we had actual furniture and John came along. Even when I
made the biggest mistake of my life, and we decided it was best to move our family to Chicago to be
near our wilderness roots, he understood and stood by me, Kathe and he even threw a wonderful
farewell dinner for Carol and me at his apartment. And he stayed close, he and Kathe came to see us
when we visited New York. Because of this, June and John remember Bob, and he had an influence
on them, too.

It would be easier for me to pick up a guitar and play for you like Jimi Hendrix or Eric Clapton than it
would be for me to tell you things I heard Bob say. He was the Paganini of words. He could use the
same word in a sentence three, four or more times and each time it would have a different, totally
precise, correct, absolutely appropriate, singular unique meaning. Move over Gertrude Stein. It was
staggering the levels of meaning, humor, warmth, graciousness, wisdom that he could come up with
in a single sentence let alone paragraph. If you don't believe me, go read something he wrote like
those Volkswagen ads and, then, try to imagine what it was like to hear him talk.

That's the best I can do.

I am so grateful for my years at DDB. So many wonderful talented people who gave me so much
and taught me so much. I had mentors in droves. Bob was one of the tippy top most important.

I know what's going to happen when I go to heaven. I'll find myself walking along West 43rd St. to
number 20 just like I did over 50 years ago right out of the woods. Saint Peter will meet me at the
door and take me up to the 24th floor and, after saying hello to all my wonderful friends, usher me
into Bob's office. I won't have any problem with the fact that there's no air in the room because
I won't need any. After giving me a big hug of welcome, Bob will open a drawer in his desk and take
out a golden pencil and hand it to me. With it, I'll be able to write like he does. Better yet, when I hold
it, I will be able to talk to him the way he talks to me.

It will be wonderful. It will be heaven.

John Eding
DDB Art Director