Many of the great print and poster ads of yesteryear were illustrated. Think of Shell, Guinness or Coca-Cola. Today however, brilliant illustration in advertising is in short supply. Mark Reddy, head of art at advertising agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty London, recalls looking at a book of recent print award winners from Cannes. “I was flicking idly through it, not having seen the cover, and I thought it was someone’s portfolio because it was all so similar,” he says. “There was a distinct photographic style encapsulating the idea, each one with heavy rendering, the pack shot in the bottom right-hand corner, each with three words of copy – every one was the same. It wasn’t a celebration of creativity, it was a celebration of sameness.”
Reddy blames this homogeneity in part on something that has become a particular hobby horse of his – the perceived diminution of the role of art direction in advertising. “I’ve always felt that art direction is strategic,” he says, stressing that its role has never been more valuable than today. “When you are trying to create an idea that has to exist on everything from the app to the poster to the website, then there has never been more need for a visual glue to hold everything together. You are looking for a set of manoeuvrable visual principles that allow a brand to flex, but that are identifiable and still allow for creativity along the way.” However, he says, “What happens more often is that the look of something is regarded as the thing you do after you’ve had the idea. It’s regarded as a bit of dressing, a bit of ‘stuff’ done at the end and not an intrinsic, structural tool that allows the strategic visions of a brand to come through.”
He also blames the way in which creative teams have been taught to work. “Most creatives have been educated in ‘idea creation’,” Reddy says. “Very few understand how to bring an idea to fruition, consequently a lot of ideas are rendered in a way that doesn’t consider how the idea may be executed.” Creatives, he says, often lack an awareness of the multitude of photographers, illustrators or designers available to take an idea in an unexpected direction. There is, he says, “a love affair with the real…. As a consequence, often work becomes quite monotonously CGI oriented.”
Illustration, he concedes, “is always a harder sell…. If you are illustration-minded, you need to construct an idea with some knowledge and understanding of where you want to go with it so that when it comes to selling the idea you’ve already implanted in the client’s head what it might look like.”
It sometimes also suffers from not being regarded as ‘premium’ enough, or even childlike to some. Clients can, Reddy says, suffer from an “inability to distinguish between something that is graphically seductive, beautiful and modern, and a cartoon: there can be an inability to see beyond that level of rendering”.
But, he says, “illustration’s strength is that you don’t have the process. If you’re shooting something, you have to allow time for a location search and a casting – inevitably it’s much more expensive.” Illustration also has the distinct advantage of offering fewer points of contention. “As soon as you move into photography, you have the inevitable judgements about the world that you are portraying which becomes detailed in a minute sense: is their house right? Is their car right? Is their hair too long? Are they wearing the right shoes? All those things are inevitable points of conflict and [arguing about them] takes up too much time. Whereas with illustration, if you propose to have, say, a purple elephant skiing off a cliff, it doesn’t matter if it’s purple or green or whatever so it becomes possible to change [without harming the work]. If you are dealing in metaphor, there are thousands of ways that enable you to be creative and interesting without feeling that by changing one thing the idea is ruined.”
BBH’s Vodafone campaign, which ran from 2007 until 2010, is a great case study in the use of illustration in advertising. “Vodafone were a fast-moving, reactive organisation that created a vast volume of work, so a rapid response was essential,” Reddy says. To cope with the sheer amount of ads – which ran to hundreds of executions during the campaign – Reddy set up a team of 20 to 30 regular illustrators to which he added new names as the campaign progressed.
Rather than being utterly prescriptive about the style, Reddy says the agency just asked for work that was “vibrant, upbeat, usually strikingly graphic … so there was a family look to the posters even though they were all different.” The work was also distinctive: “Vodafone have always produced a huge number of posters and in that environment illustration has enormous standout,” Reddy says.
The key to the campaign was something Reddy nicknamed the ‘Tetris’ – two adjacent red rectangles, one housing the Vodafone logo, the other taking the headline and copy for each ad, usually a tactical message about a new offer or service. These were the elements of greatest concern to the client and the subject of almost all the usual back and forth and endless tweaking that goes on in the production of an ad. Thus, says Reddy, “The insanity of commenting on the construction of a piece of work was limited to what was in the box – the choice of type, the size of the type, the way that the type was set, the position and size of the logo. [I thought that] if all of that was accounted for and captured in a handy system then there would still be room to be creative.” It was, he says, “an attempt to try and keep all the corporate angst in one place” and leave the rest of the layout for the illustrators to do their thing uninterrupted.
The Vodafone campaign was fantasically varied in the styles of illustration used with over 200 commissions during the campaign. It made full use of what Reddy refers to as illustration’s “vast pool of eclecticism to dip into”.
Similarly varied is a current BBH campaign for The Guardian. Reddy designed a set of guidelines for all the paper’s advertising which then allow for a wide range of stylistic flexibility in execution. Photoreal montage by Jean-Marie Vives is used for a campaign on global development coverage in the paper, while Matt Blease illustrated a fun Movie Mashup interactive piece in which readers could combine the look of different film characters, and Al Murphy gave Guardian Jobs a style of its own. “So in one client you’ve got that flex,” Reddy says. “The Guardian know who they are, which always comes through so, as a consequence, one can meander off and every project can have its own look. Every month there is another Guardian project that is utterly different from the last one stylistically.”
“I love illustration,” Reddy adds. “It’s that idiosyncrasy of vision, that real particularity and character that you get. Every illustrator is different from the next so if you are trying to stand out and create an identity that is ownable then illustration is really a lovely tool.”