“You can work in two ways; it can be beautiful, or it can be ugly. Which would you rather see?”

What is the future for advertising art direction?

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In the April issue of CR, art director Paul Cohen lamented the state of art direction within advertising. According to Cohen, the profession is in decline, under-appreciated by clients as well as agencies, with a basic understanding of art direction’s function in advertising seemingly lost. Cohen’s article got us thinking – particularly about what role art direction, such a vital aspect of traditional press and poster and television advert­ising, has in the brave new world of multi-platform, integrated ad campaigns that appear across a range of media, from digital to TVIs  to packaging to magazines. Having talked to a number of the leading lights in UK art direction, it appears that Cohen is far from alone in his concerns, but also that, like everything else in the advertising industry, art direction is a profession that is in the process of evolution.

What is unanimous is that art direction, far from being a dying tradition, is more vital than ever. “Art direction has never been more import-ant,” says Mark Reddy, head of art at BBH London. “There have never been more platforms with which you need to work. Understanding the visual integrity of an idea is vital, and that needs someone who understands and articulates a visual point of view…. It’s not a different mindset now – you still have to be informed and understand who’s out there and who’s doing what. [With a diverse advertising landscape] you’ve got to do all of it, but do all of it well. You need a point of development and that still means having someone who under­stands type and illustration.”

Despite this, there is concern over the prevailing blandness in advertising, for which the client is held mostly to blame. “Art direction is still strong in advertising,” says designer Adrian Shaughnessy who, as former creative director of studios This Is Real Art and Intro, has worked with many major agencies. “But it’s the art direction of cliché and predict­ability. Time and time again, we see the benefits of brave and uncompromising advertising, yet the majority of clients seem wedded to the notion that safe is always best…. Clients have always interfered, but one thing I’ve increasingly noticed about advert­ising jobs today is that they often start off being adventurous and ambitious, but by the time the client team gets involved, everything gets reduced to a boil in the bag uniformity. I have some great meetings with ad-land creatives, and then I wait for the call – ‘Sorry, client just wants a giant logo at the end.’”

But how have we got into the situation where the client is able to interfere with the design of an ad so much? Ironically, it appears to be largely due to the ease of use that our much-loved Mac computers provide, which has demystified how a piece of design is created, how a film might be edited, and how websites are built. With the proliferation of homemade websites and movies, it is perhaps harder now to understand where the art director’s unique expertise lies. “A lot of smoke and mirrors have disappeared,” says Grant Parker, head of art at ddb London. “They know we can turn it around in an afternoon. There’s no more magic in art directors, and a lot of people think they can do it themselves, because they have some programme on their computer.”

“Art direction has been ‘exposed’,” agrees multi-award winning art director Alexandra Taylor. “No mystery exists anymore. The vast choice of typefaces is available to everyone. The blowing up and down of logos and type is simple, and the arrangement of layout and photography can be manipulated at will. When the client utters the words ‘Can you just blow up my logo by 10%?’, they are not only starting a dialogue they think they understand, but are sending art directors to early graves. Their ignorance must be stopped.”

The other major knock-on effect of the Mac culture is that there is a constant tightening of the time allowed for art directors to work on a job. Perhaps this is understandable – if a client sees their children put together the basics of a website in an afternoon, surely it shouldn’t take much longer for an agency to create one? Again, a lack of understanding of the art director’s role is at the heart of the problem. “Great execution takes time,” says This Is Real Art’s current creative director Paul Belford, simply. “So we need to be able to explain to account people and clients why we need more time. Then they will be on our side, expecting something brilliant. We also need to be able to articulate the huge benefits of work that visually stands out. I once presented some distinctive layouts to a client, a room full of clients actually. The silence was excruciating. They were shocked, even though the agency had done its best to manage their expect­ations and prepare them for some interesting work. Finally the head client said: ‘Isn’t that a little risky?’ My response was this: ‘What’s risky is running work that looks just like your competitors’ work. Better to run something that is distinctive, memorable and ownable.’ The ads ran. And six months later the client was very happy.”

While it might be appealing to blame the clients for everything, attitudes towards art direction within agencies are also contributing to the problem. In his article, Paul Cohen complained bitterly about the lack of respect afforded to art directors, and a more basic problem seems to lie with a lack of understanding of what art direction actually is.

“For D&AD, I run an art direction workshop with Paul Belford, and we spend the first hour just defining art direction,” says Adrian Shaughnessy. “It means different things to different people. Unfortunately clients see it as just ‘look and feel’ – the bit that dresses up the strategy – but in an image-based culture like ours, it can be the most important factor in producing ads that have a real resonance.”

Spotting a gap in the market, Alexandra Taylor has begun presenting workshops at agencies to re-teach (or sometimes teach for the first time) what she sees as the fundamental rules of the trade. Her workshops have so far been attended by both junior and middleweight creatives. “The interesting thing that emerged in the sessions was how grateful the creatives (of any level) were to be reminded of simply the most obvious art directional rules,” she says.

Education is clearly an issue, and there is a general consensus that graduates are often entering the industry without the sufficient skill set required in today’s advertising world, where diversity is increasingly demanded. The distinction between the copywriter and the art director is also less evident, with all creatives taking on more general roles. But this is not necessarily a positive develop­ment. “I think it’s a really bad thing,” says Mark Reddy. “What you want is a group of people who are all experts in their fields. The worst thing is to have a group of generalists. You need the moments of conflict – it’s these that create invention.”

This healthy mixture of expertise is perhaps more evident in digital agencies, where there is less separation between departments, and the creatives work alongside those producing the technology for projects, with everyone contributing ideas. “With digital it’s a lot more collaborative, we don’t have a standard agency structure to adhere to,” says Laura Jordan Bambach, head of art at Glue London. “A lot of digital agencies don’t have traditional copywriter/ art director teams. Many don’t have separate departments. What’s common to all is that techno­logists, motion graphic experts, designers and copywriters all work together. A really fantastic idea might come out of a brilliant bit of technology as much as from an advertising idea in the trad­itional sense…. In digital, as in all media, an idea is the most important thing. But at Glue we do beautiful, well-crafted work, and that’s also what clients come to us for.”

The idea rules in all forms of advertising, but more than ever this needs to be articulated in ways that capture the audience’s imagination. Modern advertising’s challenge is no longer to find new ways to interrupt its audience and hope that their work gets noticed, but to actively engage with viewers, and make them want to interact with brands. For this, art direction is crucial. “Our job is not to produce ads,” says Paul Belford. “People dislike ads. They screen them out because, as we all know, the overwhelming majority of ads are so awful. Our real job is to dramatise the benefits of a product or service in a way that the target market notices, likes and remembers. To do this, we clearly need great strategies and ideas. But we also need great execution. The execution should involve doing something to make what we do not look like an ad.”

“You can work in two ways,” concludes Mark Reddy. “It can be beautiful, or it can be ugly. Which would you rather see?”