I have a theory. The biggest threat to creative advertising (as opposed to the other 99.9% of advertising) isn’t the recession, terrified clients or planners. No. It’s the branding agencies. Friendly fire from fellow creatives.
Desperately ironic really – aren’t they supposed to help make everything look better? But the advertising sections of brand guidelines documents (pretty much always written by people who have never made an ad in their lives) all too frequently lock the ads into a mind-numbing straitjacket. And the last time I checked, the function of branding was most definitely not to be ignorable.
Which leads nicely to Exhibit A.
A print ad for Waterstones that I art directed 15 years ago. It’s rubbish. According to Waterstones’ brand guidelines at the time (and their current guidelines, come to think of it). The concept is fine, it’s just that the layout, typeface and colours are all completely wrong. Apparently.
It took quite a few patient meetings to get this through. So how did we win the argument? By explaining the thinking behind the art direction. And how it was designed to make the ads more memorable. If you can justify every element on the page, you’ve got a fighting chance. (But for God’s sake don’t leave this to account people. It’s your idea, you should be able to explain it best.)
Here’s how it goes. The campaign is about Waterstones’ love of books. And when you think about it, books have the same elements on them as ads. A headline could be a book title, a logo could look like a publisher’s logo and a visual could be a cover image. That’s the simple thinking behind this art direction. The campaign is all about books so why not literally put each execution on a book, take a picture of it and that’s the ad.
We made about 12 executions like this, each one featuring a different reason why books are great. And each one designed to look like a different real book – so no consistency in typography, colours, style of imagery or layout of the book cover. Just like walking into a bookshop. The consistency for this campaign came from the fact that each execution took the form of a book – that’s all you need.
In this execution the subject matter was about the power of books, dramatised by the fact that throughout history, dictators have felt the need to burn certain books. So we found a traditional bookbinder to lovingly hand-make a blank book. We crafted the headline using traditional letterpress printing, like a title page using an appropriate typeface. We foiled the logo onto the beautifully cloth covered spine … and we took a blow torch to it all – the ad’s about burning books remember? Great fun. We made three books. The first one was burned to a crisp. This one burned the best. All that was left to do then was to photograph it on a plain white background.
And hey presto, we have relevant, surprising, brand-police-upsetting, yet instantly recognisable, and, most importantly, flexible, art direction. You can make 50
ads and it need never look boring. Common sense: one, branding bullshit: nil.
I’m passionately against burning books of course. But I’ll make an exception for ill-considered and downright damaging guidelines documents.