I often criticise youngsters for not learning from the past.

Recently I received a reply: “We do learn about all the past greats, David Ogilvy, Rosser Reeves,  Bill Bernbach.”

And that’s my problem, right there.

They assume everyone and everything is the same, just because it’s past.

They’re studying it like history, like an academic subject, all you have to do is remember everything, totally uncritically.

But remembering it isn’t the same as learning from it.

Getting involved in it, having an opinion about it, who’s great and who’s crap and why, that’s learning from it.

David Ogilvy, Rosser Reeves, and Bill Bernbach were not the same.

In fact they were totally different.

Bernbach hated Rosser Reeves’ advertising and his mandatory USP.

Bernbach thought his job was to treat people with intelligence, not hectoring.

When I was learning in New York, everyone was split down the middle, you were either for Ogilvy or for Bernbach.

If you were for Bernbach, Ogilvy was old-fashioned, patronising, silly rules.

If you were for Ogilvy, Bernbach was just entertainment, nothing to do with selling.

You had an opinion, and that gave you passion, which gave your work energy and purpose.

Not like the bland “let’s please everyone” advertising we see today.

Ed McCabe did the advertising that built the Purdue chicken brand: IT TAKES A TOUGH MAN TO MAKE A TENDER CHICKEN.

He used the owner, Frank Perdue, in the ads because he looked like a chicken.

On the shoot, Ed McCabe kept telling Frank Purdue to smile.

Frank Purdue said: “David Ogilvy says humour has no place in advertising, no one buys anything from a clown.”

Ed McCabe shouted: “Ogilvy never made you a millionaire, now fucking smile.”

Personally, I was always firmly in the Bernbach camp.

Ogilvy’s work was very client friendly: easy to buy, unchallenging, safe, ordinary.

So he made more money than Bernbach, but he didn’t make such great advertising.

But don’t take my opinion, work it out for yourself.

By studying the past you train your brain to recognise good from bad, not just who did it.

Start by deciding which award-winning ads are rubbish and which are great.

By doing that you build your own advertising personality.

The people at the top didn’t agree with each other, that’s what made them great.

So by studying the best, you can discover what you think.

Which parts make sense and which parts don’t.

You keep what you think is good, and leave what you don’t.

And that will be the basis for what makes you, you.

Then you’ll have a point of difference, instead of just parroting what you think is an acceptable opinion.

When Campaign made GGT agency of the year, they described it as follows: “The work has the style and class of the best British advertising and the muscularity of the best American advertising. People describe it as “Like a brick coming through the window with the client’s name on it.”

That’s because we didn’t copy one set of greats, we took different bits from both.

Keeping what we loved and leaving what we didn’t, like a buffet.

But you won’t do that just by thinking that learning the ads parrot-fashion is the same as learning.

You can’t improve on what went before unless you question it.