First of all, let’s be clear about this: we take a back seat to nobody in our passion for High-Tech Gee Whiz Creative Toys. When our supply of fonts zoomed past" data-categories = "" data-popup = "" data-ads = "Yes" data-company = "[]" data-outstream = "yes" >

IN DEFENSE OF A LOW-TECH SECRET WEAPON By BOB KILLIA

First of all, let’s be clear about this: we take a back seat to nobody in our passion for High-Tech Gee Whiz Creative Toys. When our supply of fonts zoomed past

We got every bot-a-boom software package, plus every bot-a-bing upgrade. We got color scanners and printers and CD-ROM and DAT drives and Quadra 800 because the 950 wasn’t fast enough.
But . . . we also have much more powerful, more flexible conceptual tools working for us, ones that can help us produce great work . . . even if the power goes out. No crashes. No daily backups. No ‘Oops, I sat on the Syquest.’ We are speaking, of course, of the ultimate low-tech conceptual medium: the cocktail napkin.
Honest.
Have you ever noticed, as we have, how some of the best and brightest ideas for ad campaigns (or new products, made-for-TV movies, national healthcare reform or vegetarian restaurant concepts) begin life as cocktail napkin doodles? It’s that way in agencies small, medium and large. In New York and L.A., Frankfort and Fargo. It’s been that way for decades.
Give the humble cocktail napkin doodle some thought, and you’ll probably come, as we did, to a few unexpected and illuminating insights. For one thing, we believe the kind of conceptual breakthrough of which we speak is not caused by the quality (or quantity) of the beverages being consumed in the native habitat of the cocktail napkin, the neighborhood saloon. Not entirely.
Nor do you get that proverbial whack upside the head because of the out-of-office, no-telephone peace and quiet of those same watering holes. Not entirely.
Instead, we believe there’s something’s intrinsically valuable in the medium itself: the act of creating doodle layouts on cocktail napkins is necessarily an exercise in visual and verbal economy. Think about it: a felt-tip pen on a tissue surface forces you to keep your ideas and images simple, to use a single dominant visual, to stress a single selling proposition, to find the minimum number of perfect words to ignite the idea.
With cocktail-napkin layouts, you can’t rely on body copy to rescue a weak headline. You can’t fall back on production values to shore up a limp strategy. There’s no color. No frenzied quick cuts. No killer soundtrack. No bimbos in bikinis. No Joe Pytka. No dazzling animated effects. There is, in short, nowhere to hide.
This is the flat-out 180-degree opposite of running Illustrator 5.0 with 40 megs of RAM, a cache card and a RISC-chip accelerator: You’re producing nothing less than a naked idea, and it has to be great to survive. Not brilliant enough? Wad it up, call for the barkeep, order two more of the same, please.
That’s why we decided that this was a constructive creative discipline to hold writers and art directors to. After all, if it’s such a great straightjacket to put ourselves in, such a great litmus test for concepts, couldn’t we find a way to make it work in-house as well as it works during Happy Hour with one foot up on a brass rail?
So when we opened our agency six years ago, one of our first investments (after the computers) was an industrial-size case of cocktail napkins.
We’ve been using them ever since, for brainstorming sessions, thumbnail layouts, whatever. It’s not that we don’t use our computers to doodle, e.g., ‘I want to see that headline in 12 other typefaces, in front of 12 different color background textures right now.’ But in those early stages of fevered start-from-a-blank-sheet conceptual activity, there’s nothing like nice fat Design markers and a pile of our secret weapons. (Maybe we need Naugahyde booths, a couple of Lone Star neon signs and some Dinah Washington tunes on a jukebox, too, but we haven’t gone that far. Yet.)
It takes 144 cocktail napkins, by the by, the cover our conference table. The number needed to cover a specific marketing problem, we hasten to add, varies. But any end product that begins with this low, low, low-tech approach usually reflects a kind of simplicity. (Uh, perhaps simplemindedness?)
And that, if you think about it, is a pretty valuable creative sensibility for an agency to work toward. Cheers.
Copyright Adweek L.P. (1993)