There used to be an axiom in local advertising circles that if you did political ads you didn't take on commercial clients, and vice-versa. The two worlds were considered absolutely incompatible.
That changed with Robert Berning, who came to New Orleans decades ago to hone his craft as a filmmaker and ultimately became a cutting-edge ad man who mastered both political and commercial image making. Berning, who died July 24 of a heart attack at the age of 64, produced a body of work that was as much art as advertising. His clients included District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro, Clerk of Civil Court Dale Atkins, auto dealer Ronnie Lamarque, the McIlhenny Company and many others.
"Robert was always in total control of the set," recalled friend and political consultant Bill Schultz, who worked with Berning on many campaigns. "He always used to say that there was only one director — him. He was a perfectionist. He also was a true image-maker. He could put his finger on the pulse of a candidate quicker and better than anyone else I knew."
Cannizzaro echoed Schultz's assessment.
"I remember in one of the first spots that he did for me, he took shots of me tying my tie in the morning," the DA said. "I have been tying my tie since I was a schoolboy, but that day he made me tie it at least 30 times. He wanted to make the shot perfect."
That attention to detail set Berning's work apart. His company won numerous local, regional and national awards. His ads had a richness about them, whether they showed Lamarque dancing and singing about the Saints or touted a candidate for public office.
"Robert always believed in what he was doing and in the candidates he worked for," Cannizzaro said. "He was never about race or party. He honestly thought each of his candidates was the best person for the job, and he inevitably became his clients' friend."
Days after Berning's death, Lamarque placed large ads in The Times-Picayune saluting him — not as a political genius, but as a friend.
He was a man of great passions outside of work, too. He lived life to the fullest, throwing himself headlong into each new interest, whether it was boating (he had a big boat), red wine (he drank only big reds), cars (he drove a Hummer and a Jaguar), or military history. One of his delights was taking his eldest grandchild, Robert Berning IV, to the World War II Museum.
Cannizzaro also recalled that Berning was "brutally honest."
"I once asked Robert if he thought I could do voiceovers on TV," the DA said with a laugh. "He pulled his eyeglasses down to the end of his nose and looked at me over them and said, 'Leon, don't give up your day job.'"
Perhaps the only pursuit he never quite mastered was arguing with friends, particularly Schultz and attorney Franz Zibilich. The three of them played a continuing game of one-upmanship that always found Berning on the short end — mostly because he was too kindhearted to go for the jugular, unlike his two pals.
"It's ironic that Robert died of a bad heart," Schultz noted in eulogizing his friend, "because he had a very good heart."