Adweek Creative 2000: The Artful Dodgers

New technology is both dazzling and dangerous, writes veteran art director Rick Boyko
About 20 years ago, I was standing outside Chiat/Day’s sunny Venice, Calif., office with the agency’s head of print production and a vendor who handled our color separations. The vendor was telling us that someday we’d be able to send all our files digitally, with no need for preprints and reprints. He predicted that in this brave new world, agency art directors would be able to approve ads from the desktop.
My first reaction? “There’s no way in hell that art directors are going to allow that to happen.” No way they would want the process to get so streamlined and so digitized that they would lose the experience of actually sitting over the mechanical board-playing with type and kerning it just a little tighter-and “owning the page.”
So much for my ability to predict the future. Everything that vendor talked about came to pass, sooner and more extensively than even he thought it would. Although I had concerns, I quickly changed my tune and was dazzled-like almost every other art director in the business-by the unlimited capabilities technology immediately brought to our craft. All that playing with layout and kerning type could now be done on the computer. And it could be done faster and with much more assurance that it would come out right.
The beauty of this (which I hadn’t anticipated before using the equipment) was that the technology could be so liberating. It simplified and quickened your ability to play with
layout and type; that meant you could try more approaches, even harebrained ones. You could try anything. If you didn’t like it, you’d instantly return to what you had. And you could readily use special effects that weren’t as available before, manipulating images, retouching photos-all those formerly painstaking processes were now at your fingertips, or at least
at the fingertips of someone in your department. It freed us up to experiment in ways that just weren’t possible before.
In addition, the same things the desktop computer was doing with print production, the Avid was doing with TV production. It’s now almost hard to believe the elaborate, fumbling processes we used to go through, not very long ago, when editing. You’d hand-cut the film on a Movieola or flatbed, with the trims hanging in a trim basket; you’d tape the pieces together and synch up the sound. If it wasn’t just right, you’d have to pull it all apart and start over. Special effects were extremely difficult, and usually you didn’t even think about something like that until after you had the cut.
But with the Avid, you could do repositioning, color correcting and special effects on the rough cut. Which made that term more and more inappropriate; there was nothing “rough” about rough cuts anymore. Again, this was all very liberating. By freeing us from the mundane cut-and-paste aspects of the creative process, we could try more things. Just about anything you could think of or visualize, you could do.
All that represents the positive side of technology’s impact on the day-to-day creative process at agencies-and it really has been a huge upside. But there’s a substantial downside, too, and I think many art directors and creative directors are starting to acknowledge this.
One problem is that agencies are finding themselves increasingly staffed with a new generation of art directors who were weaned on the computer. While it’s great to have
people who are so computer literate and up-to-speed on the latest software applications, it’s also becoming evident that many of them lack certain basic skills-such as the ability to put an idea down on a piece of paper.
Today’s art directors are coming out of school with no training in the art of drawing, human anatomy and perspective. Consequently, they’re almost illiterate when you take them off the computer.
Why does this matter?
Given that the computer dominates the production process, what difference does it make if someone is unable to draw a picture on a scrap of paper? The answer is that it can have a surprisingly profound effect on the process of generating ideas. Here’s why: A classically trained art director is able to instantly convey visual ideas and perspectives. If I’m thinking of a particular shot or photographic angle-say a low angle looking up at the subject that creates a certain distortion and visual emphasis-I could sketch it in a rough layout or storyboard form. Then I could show that rough drawing to a photographer or
commercial director, and say, “Here’s the dramatic perspective I’m thinking of.” That becomes a starting point for my collaboration with that artist, and who knows where we go from there.
Now contrast that with an art director who is totally computer dependent. They also start with an idea in their head, but instead of sketching something, they’re more apt to go right to the computer. The first thing they do is look for scrap to convey their idea. This is where the problem begins. For starters, their imagination is limited by the scrap that is available-which is, by the way, the same scrap every other art director is scanning into their rough layouts. It’s generic.
Once they’ve found this generic scrap, they scan it in. Then they go ahead and start tinkering with the layout (because you’re on the computer and it’s easy, so why not?). They end up with something that looks almost like a finished ad-except that it’s not really original; it’s borrowed from other sources.
By the time the photographer sees this layout, it’s practically a done deal. Because the client has probably already seen it and signed off on it-which means you really can’t change it all that much now, even if you wanted to. So instead of being a starting point, this visual is more like a dead end.
By relying so much on computer scrap, the art directors end up limiting themselves, as well as the photographers. By opting for a more polished, computer-generated layout instead of the rough sketch on paper, you’ve lost the creative freedom and the magic that happens when you show a drawing to a photographer and really explore things together.
In some ways, the problem is even worse with television. Instead of sketching storyboards, we can now work on the Avid and create a rip-o-matic that pulls together the best scenes from 15 award-winning, million-dollar commercials shot by star directors and jam them into a rough cut for one ad. Once you’ve shown this to the client and he’s signed off on it, you’ve set yourself up for a fall. To actually replicate all the great stuff in the rip-o-matic would probably cost you $15 million to shoot, and your budget is $500,000.
There’s a second problem related to the tech explosion, and it has to do with time. More and more these days, I’m hearing creative people talk about the pressures of having to generate ideas at “dot.com speed.” Of course, this is partly a reflection of the pressured times we’re living in and the hyper-competitive business environment. But it’s also a direct result of technology having obliterated the accepted time-tables for producing advertising. There used to be a set amount of time available to creatives after the strategy was agreed on to generate ideas and get them approved-and it was more or less tied to the production process. But then technology came along and collapsed the production schedules. Since we were doing all these things digitally, we could do them faster. It was just assumed by clients that we could speed up the idea-generation part of the process accordingly.
That was a completely faulty assumption. The dot.com world may have made lots of things faster, but coming up with a great idea isn’t one of them. We can’t change the way an idea comes to us. Sometimes lightning strikes right away, but sometimes, it takes a while.
I think there’s a growing realization that we can’t keep saying to clients, “Sure, we’ll get that done by tomorrow.” We all need to start re-educating clients about the time required to generate ideas, assuring them that, yes, we will use technology to expedite things wherever possible-but there are some things you can’t speed up without compromising quality.
As an industry, we’re starting to take a more balanced approach to technology, making sure that it serves us instead of dictating or constraining what we do. One encouraging sign is that the creative community-after an initial period of infatuation with highly cluttered computer-
driven design-has lately moved back toward work that is simpler and shows more craftsmanship. If you look at what’s doing well at award shows these days, it’s simple. They recognize a basic truism that has been unchanged by technology: In the end, it’s all about the idea.
We’ve been trying to drive home that principle at my agency, and we’ve set up a couple of programs with that in mind. In our Young Guns program, which mentors creative teams straight out of school, we’re actually training people to put their ideas down on paper before going to the computer. I do wish we could get some support from the ad schools in this regard; it would be easier to encourage people to sketch ideas if their schooling included some basic courses in drawing and perspective. We’ve also set up a typographic program to help teach some of the basics of type.
At the same time, we’re trying to break some of the bad habits of computer design-such as the tendency to spend more time on execution than on conception.
Too often I see people come up with a mediocre idea and then spend hours polishing it on the computer. They find the perfect scrap, they scan it in, they play with the type-and they fall in love with it. But even after all that polishing, there’s a word for what they end up with. It rhymes with scrap. The frustrating part is that in the same amount of time, they probably could have come up with five ideas had they been working in rough form.
Sure, technology has been a huge asset in terms of helping with the creation of ads. There’s no way we’re going back to the days of being hunched over the mechanical board. Nevertheless, I think we need to look for ways to evolve the creative process so that it takes full advantage of technology but always puts the idea first. Just because we’ve got state-of-the-art desktop equipment doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for the simple idea scribbled on a napkin.
The original concept for Fallon McElligott’s famous “Perception/Reality” campaign with the juxtaposed images was jotted down on a napkin in a restaurant. That concept lived on and was incredibly successful, for the next 15 years.
That’s a pretty long run, especially in “dot.com time.”-Rick Boyko is co-president of Ogilvy & Mather New York and chief creative officer of Ogilvy
& Mather North America.