Paula Green was the mastermind behind the Avis ‘We Try Harder’ campaign. She was also the inspiration for the character Peggy Olson, from Mad Men.
Warren Avis was a retired Air Force officer embroiled in a bitter battle with Hertz, a rival rent-a-car business who he claimed never had an original idea. The idea that put Avis on the map? Cars in airports.
It was revolutionary, because at the time most car rental locations – including Hertz’s – were located far from airports, usually downtown. Avis knew it would work. And in his strange own way felt he was making personal transportation more accessible for the masses. At the time, commercial air travel was barely off the ground, yet hordes of business travellers saw the value of instant access to automobiles. Moving from A to B in strange distant cities suddenly became a lot less cumbersome.
Though it wasn’t long until Hertz, and competitors, bustled in to copy the idea and set up shop in airports across America. In 1962, as had always been the case, Avis were a distant second. Hertz held the majority of market share.
In an attempt to transform their fortunes, CEO at the time Robert Townsend reached out to the agency DDB (Doyle, Dane, Bernbach) to solicit the services of the almost mythical creative figure, Bill Bernbach. He was so good he could sell Nazi cars in America. He also pioneered many ad agency innovations – like the copy writer/art director partnership – that still lives on today. So much faith had Warren Avis, that he was willing to give Bernbach the creative’s dream – a carte blanche. Anything he came up with, Avis would run. Bernbach handed the opportunity to a rising star in copywriter, Paula Green, and a well-established art director in Helmut Krone. Years later, in an article for AdAge a former employee would describe working for Krone as “Titanically hard work. Our mission was nothing less than the reinvention of the art of advertising.”
After learning everything she could about Avis, Paula Green settled on an idea. She was struck by a moments inspiration during an interview with an employee:
“When you’re only No. 2, you try harder,” they said, “Or else.”
After presenting it to Bernbach the three decided to make it the bedrock of the campaign. He loved it. And they embraced Avis’ second-place status as a sneaky way to tout the brand’s customer service. Though before it was presented, it was researched. As was always the case. The results left Paula Green horrified. Every indicator suggested it was going to bomb. Bernbach however, being the king of the hunch, stepped in and said it should run anyway. There was something about being an underdog he felt would strike a chord with people.
Naturally the Avis CEO, Robert Townsend, was concerned. Acknowledging any sort of brand weakness went against every conventional management practice at the time. Why encourage consumers to wonder why you’re stuck in second place? Better to project unflappable confidence. Though keeping to his promise, they ran it. Bernbach was right.
The “We Try Harder” ads were an instant hit. Within a year, Avis went from losing $3.2 million to earning $1.2 million—the first time it had been profitable in more than a decade.
Terrified Hertz executives projected that by 1968 Avis might actually need a new ad campaign—because it would no longer be No. 2. It wasn’t the case. Indeed, it ran for many, many years to come afterwards.
Green said in later interviews, “It went against the notion that you had to brag.” ‘We Try Harder’ is somewhat the story of my life.”