The following appeared in Creativity Atlanta’s e-newsletter premier edition. The request was for a ‘rant’ on the subject of my choice to the ad community at large. I turned the faucet on, and here we are.
I am what ad-historians refer to as an ‘old fart.’ I can be carbon dated to the days when copywriters hunched over Selectric typewriters and art directors wielded Exacto knives like surgeons, cutting and pasting type until it kerned like a mother. The creation of an ad was a painstaking process that took time and craft–lots of both. If it was a turd of an ad, you had to live with the stink of it a long while before you flushed it into the world to be ignored. There was only so much varnish you could put on said turd.
Things are much different today. Now computer technology enables the creation and flushing of turds to be almost instantaneous, and the opportunities for varnishing turds are virtually limitless. Science marches on!
Great ads have always been rare, but today technology allows us to raise the level of mediocrity to such an art that we can actually create the illusion of an idea when there isn’t one. Put simply, we can create ads that have more varnish than turd! (For those of you just joining, this is not the Harvard commencement address or the welcoming speech for a Mensa meeting.)
Way back when, you began with an idea, and you did your level best to get a client to buy your idea so that you could work like crazy to bring your vision to life. Today, all too often, creative people begin with a great stock photo or trendy type treatment or borrowed award-show-winning-but-altered-just-enough-so-as-not-to-scream-complete-rip-off layout.
Today it’s easy to sell a beautiful stock shot or technique because the technology exists to do so. You can disguise the lack of a concept or strong selling idea with your pretty picture. The client buys the ‘shiny object’ you dangle before him or her. You get approval and off you go, trying to lay on some digital varnish in hopes that somewhere along the line the concept will get stronger, or maybe even come to life.
It doesn’t, but the varnish does seal-in the stink.
Back in the dark ages, I worked at the Richard Group and every art director was taught to draw (yes draw–with hands and everything!) layouts in a very precise rough style. They were taught to pencil-in headlines in a style that gave no indication of font or type trickery. Copy was indicated with horizontal lines. These were truly rough layouts that looked nice. The beauty of this system was simple: it forced creative people and clients to focus on the concept, not the elements of the ad. Turds rarely got through this system.
Has technology made our lives easier? No doubt. I don’t miss my Selectric, I don’t know of any art directors yearning to knife type again. But technology can be a seductress to hiding the fact that maybe what we have isn’t so much a great idea, but a well-varnished turd.
Maybe it’s time we all got a little old school; in concepting at least. Turn off the computer, put down the C.A. Annual, get prehistoric with pencil and paper and see if you can make an idea materialize before technology brings it beautifully to life.
That’s it, a not-so-vicious rant with some friendly advice. Now I’ve got to get to work on that Harvard commencement address. You never know when you’ll be asked to give one of those suckers.