In virtually every creative endeavor — marketing, publishing, film, TV — there is an art director, a single person to unify the vision. In advertising, that vision typically relates to the character of the product or service being marketed. What makes it special? What makes it different? Why is it appealing? How does it fit in its place and time?
That’s the genesis of all great art direction. And when it came to answering those questions, nobody in the history of advertising did it better than the legendary Helmut Krone. As he put it: “I’m always after an individual personality for the product. A total way of speaking. An ad that reflects the company — that is the company itself.”
Time and again, he broke new ground in the field, developing styles and methods that are still copied and studied to this day. His most iconic creations were “Lemon” and “Think Small” for Volkswagen, “When you’re only No. 2, you try harder” for Avis, and Juan Valdez, the personification of Colombian coffee.
As Krone’s colleague the great copywriter Bob Levenson once said: “Among art directors, there’s Helmut Krone and then there’s everybody else.”
A tireless perfectionist who left nothing to chance, Krone was nonetheless incredibly daring; he pushed clients to use their brands in new and bold ways. His most famous ad, “Lemon,” featured a slightly beat-up and dirty VW Beetle, highlighting its functionality and fortitude. In an era of gleaming tailfins and pristine land yachts, the ad stood out.
That straightforwardness was Krone’s mantra, not an exception. As his obituary in the New York Times noted:
“His best work always exemplifies honesty,’ said Marty Cooke, the creative director of TBWA Chiat/Day. By focusing on what could be a perceived weakness, such as the unflashy aspects of a Volkswagen sedan, or being the second-largest rental car agency, Mr. Krone made people stop and take notice.”
His clients often needed some nudging to go along with his counterintuitive visions. He once tried to convince VW to run a print ad featuring an exec behind the wheel of a Rolls Royce with a tagline reading: “It’s been a pretty good year for us at Volkswagen.” (That idea, apparently, was a bridge too far and was turned down, though Krone called it one of his personal favorites.)
He was famous for “zigging when they zagged.” After the success of “Think Small,” his competitors tried mimicking his spare, minimalist styling. But Krone, like a great standup comic, refused to rehash his material. Instead, he followed up by going big and bold for Avis.
His drive for new and different meant the copycats were constantly playing catch-up: “The only quality I really have an appreciation for is newness. To see something no one’s ever seen before. New comes at 11 o’clock at night when you’ve spent a day hunched over the board. New means breaking rules.”
Krone’s innovations are numerous. “Ads with no headlines. Headlines as captions. Photographs as logo. Typeface as brand. No headlines or copy. No product, just a sea of white. The shock of the new, delivered in sharp, precise little doses.”
He saw his path-breaking drive as an endless search for the “New Page.” Every page had to be new to Krone. Every campaign had to reconsider the product or service with clear eyes. For established products, he stripped away the residue of a thousand previous campaigns, forced himself to unlearn every preconception he might have, and see the idea at the heart of it all.
And then, as if by magic, over and over again, he tapped into the American zeitgeist, saw where it was trending, and put his marker down just ahead of popular opinion. Not so far ahead that it might not hit, and not lodged in the present, where ideas risk becoming passing fads. Krone was meticulous in planning how far ahead of the curve to be.
His sparse, efficient and audacious style is so ubiquitous now that it’s become something of an egg of Columbus, a brilliant idea that seems obvious after the fact. Many have copied the look of his ads, have tried to follow his ideology of breaking things down to first principles — but virtually no one since Helmut Krone has had his uncanny ability to read the era and give people something they didn’t even realize they wanted.