A word of advice on advertising

For any new graduate, taking that first step into the world of work can be a daunting task. We paired four recent grads with professionals in graphic design, advertising, illustration and photography, so they could experience a portfolio crit and get the chance to ask the pros for some seasoned advice. Chelsea graduate Sophia Ray meets Neil Dawson, executive creative director at BETC London

THE GRAD: Sophia Ray
THE JOB: Ad creative

Sophia Ray, a graduate from the graphic design course at Chelsea College of Art in London met with Neil Dawson, executive creative director at BETC London at BETC’s office on Thesday, August 7.  BETC London launched last June, and is an offshoot of BETC Paris. In the past year, the agency has created campaigns for Cockburn’s, Samsung, Pearl & Dean and, perhaps most famously, Ken Livingstone’s campaign for London Mayor. The duo talked through Ray’s portfolio, which includes spec work for Spring Studios, Triumph bras (for which she received a YCN Award), Sky Arts and Rough Trade Records. Dawson also offered some general advice about how to get into advertising today. Here’s their conversation:

NEIL DAWSON: What’s your background?

SOPHIA RAY: I studied graphic design at Chelsea, but at Chelsea it’s not just graphics, they teach you about ideas generation, film and we did a lot of branding and advertising as well in our third year. So that’s what I want to go into.

ND: When did you leave?

SR: I left in June. So am in the real world now! [SR shows ND her portfolio, which can be viewed online at cargocollective.com/sophiaray]

ND: Can I just ask … you call your portfolio ‘graphic design’, you’ve got filmmaking in there, there’s some interesting typography going on there. What excites you the most? It feels like what you’ve come out of Chelsea with … they’ve got you to do quite a broad range of things. Somebody coming out of Watford College, for example, it wouldn’t look like this. It would be a lot more structured in terms of ‘here’s one campaign for something … .’, ‘here’s another campaign… ‘ Whereas the range of things that you’ve done and the way you’ve approached them….

SR: … they’re all very different.

ND: Yeah. What interests you the most?

SR: I think what interests me the most is ideas, good ideas. I really enjoyed the Triumph campaign, working with a brand, I enjoyed this because it is more problem-solving and I liked coming up with the idea behind it, and executing it as well. At Chelsea we talked about big ideas and how an idea has to be quite clever. I think that’s what excites me the most – I went to a graphic design course but I think I’m more excited by ideas generation.

ND: If it’s ideas that you’re interested in, if that’s what gets you excited… you’ve got to have about five campaigns for your book, and they’ve each got to be at least three executions. Those can be anything you like, but the moment you’ve got three executions it shows you’ve got a campaign idea that is campaignable. So you’ve got to think very clearly first about what products you pick, find an interesting angle into them, and then find a consistent way of dramatising that over three different executions. Things have changed over the last few years, and I think it’s more difficult than ever for students because you’ll get a totally different response these days depending on which agency you go to. I’ve heard of good creative agencies and you’ll go in there and they say ‘I don’t want to see any adverts, just show me lots of stuff that isn’t advertising’. Obviously they are slightly bigger than us, because what we get paid to do, what we get asked for, are ads and big ideas. So that’s quite a luxury for them, to be able say ‘show us what you can do outside the confines of an ad’. We need people to be able to work within the confines of an ad, and a brief, straightaway. To be honest, that’s true of most agencies, I think. And despite digital and the internet changing everything out of all recognition, still the biggest test of an idea is how simple and quick you can make it, so a print or a poster version of an idea is still the biggest test of how good your ideas are. I think the other thing that’s happened – which you haven’t done, which is good – is you do end up with a lot of books that have a lot of digital ideas in them, which requires an awful lot of reading. You need to get your point across as simply and as quickly as possible – when we had a portfolio, ours was before the digital world of course, it was just print and posters because it was easier for a creative director to look through it and go ‘I get that, and I like it’. Our first good job we got was at BMP DDB, which is now Adam & Eve DDB, and literally Jeremy Craigen was looking through it this quickly [mimes swift turning pages]. There was no reading five paragraphs about why this is good.

SR: They need to communicate without even speaking.

ND: Yes. I’m trying to think of other things to avoid…. Because of the digital world, where you can do so many different things, you end up seeing books that are a bundle of interesting thoughts, but that aren’t really based on anything. At the beginning of each of your projects, you could lead the witness a bit. It’s a bit of a cheat but I do it when presenting to clients, where the last thing you want to do is tell them a joke, and hope they’ll get it. I always tell them the punchline beforehand because the last thing you want is for them to not get it. So I tell them the joke. I think you can have a title page that says what the product is and what the task was – when people do look at your work, they’ll know what they’re supposed to get out of it. Or they’ll know what you’re trying to get people to get out of it.

CR: Is execution as important as conveying the idea?

ND: It’s tough because it used to be just scamps, we didn’t have Macs, and what’s great about scamps is you could see very quickly whether it’s a good idea or not. These days you can tell people that but it’s very alluring to see big shiny pictures. But I think if you’re interested in ideas and you go to a place that’s good at good ideas, then the creative will see if it’s a good idea or not, whether it’s finished or not. I can’t say don’t Mac things up and make them look beautiful though because if you’re capable of doing that, that can be alluring as well. These days it’s still about great ideas but you can make them look great as well. I think you should almost write your own briefs. I think that’s a really important thing to do…. Then each time you come up with an idea, refer back to it. And pick the right things to do ads about. You want to surprise people. If you’ve heard about things in other people’s portfolios – charities that have been done again and again – just avoid them because what you’re trying to do with a creative director is what we’re trying to do with the clients, which is surprise them with new and fresh work.

CR: Is it good to pick well-known brands to work with?

ND: A full house is when you pick well-known brands that are part of people’s daily lives and you do it in a way that people  haven’t seen before – that would get you a job straightaway.

SR: When you’re employing people, is that what you look for? What are the key traits that you look for?

ND: You just want to be surprised. You just want to be surprised and look at stuff and go ‘blimey, I wish I’d done that’. Or, ‘I’ve  never thought of that thing in that way before’.

SR: Obviously you’ve had a long career, have you found that the industry’s changed, and is it still changing now? Do you think technology is making it change a bit as well now?

ND: There’s a great video of Bill Bernbach on YouThbe, a series of interviews, and he talks about the new technology, and he says ‘you know what, the principles of persuasion are going to be the same in 100 years time as they are now’. I thought it was great – it was 40 years before the internet, but he’s talking about TV as if it is the internet.

CR: How was that talked about at Chelsea? Did these things come up while you were at college?

SR: Yes, they always said to us that if the idea’s not there, there’s really no point. But our tutor always said it needs to be about big ideas, beautifully made. They did say the aesthetic was really important, and as graphic designers we now have the tools at our fingertips to make anything we want. But if the idea wasn’t there, the aesthetics would bring you nothing.

ND: That’s good. The biggest problem you get with student books is lack of strategic thinking. They go straight into a big shiny, funky idea… [without asking] why am I doing it? I did the same. I look back at some of the work and it’s rather embarrassing, to be honest. So if you work out what the task is and get that right … you can dial something up and make it spectacular so long as it’s based on that simple insight.

CR: Are you still looking for teams, or will you hire solo creatives?

ND: In terms of placements it’s absolutely fine, but as a young creative, I think it’s really tough to do these things on your own.

CR: Did you work with someone else at college Sophia?

SR: No, all these projects were on my own, apart from the Sky Arts one which I did with two other girls on my course. Which was quite hard, because the way I work with ideas is I like to talk about ideas. I found myself talking to myself sometimes! I think bouncing ideas is how I work best, talking to someone. I do feel more comfortable working in a team when it comes to ideas generation. Two heads are better than one.

CR: In terms of you hiring graduates, is there time now to mentor them on the job, or do you need them to be able to start immediately?

ND: I think it’s unrealistic to expect that, even in an agency this size. But what you do need is to see in the portfolio that you’ve already been through the discipline of coming up with an idea and then working out different executions of that idea. Bigger agencies can give people more time, but these days it’s really tough to get in, tougher than ever. It’s why I think if you go back to the strategy of it, all of a sudden you come across as much more mature, it’s a good discipline.

SR: That’s the thing to get you noticed amongst all the other graduates?

ND: I think so. Because this traditional versus digital thing is all a red herring as far as I’m concerned. You might have a great idea that’s all digital work, that’s absolutely fine, you might have one that’s all not…. It doesn’t matter what it is, it only matters what your point is, what you are trying to do.

SR: It’s almost like problem solving, isn’t it?

ND: It’s exactly that


More from CR

A word of advice on graphic design

For any new graduate, taking that first step into the world of work can be a daunting task. We paired four recent grads with professionals in graphic design, advertising, illustration and photography, so they could experience a portfolio crit and get the chance to ask the pros for some seasoned advice. First up, A Practice For Everyday Life met graphic design graduate Arthur Carey and his egg-based music machine

Graphic Designer

Fushi Wellbeing

Creative Designer

Monddi Design Agency