A Panoramic View

My stepfather, John Sadovy, was the only major photojournalist who infiltrated Hungary during the days of the revolution in 1956, getting past the border guards by disguising himself as an ice-cream salesman. His astonishing, violent and graphic photographs of the uprising filled an entire issue of Life, the magazine he worked for in New York.

He fell in love with photography as a 13-year-old boy in the tiny Czechoslovakian village of Písek. One day in 1939, a camera shop opened in the village. Some kind of strange psychic connection happened, and he would stand with his nose pressed against the shop window for hours. He turned out to be a natural at taking pictures and went on to win the Robert Capa Award, the world’s most prestigious prize in photojournalism. A long way from backwoods prewar Czechoslovakia.

A talent for photography is like a talent for any creative act: Sure, you can improve through coaching, but talent is what separates the competent from the great.

A common misconception among the creatively untalented is that you can shore up your shortcomings with technology. But my stepfather took nearly all his pictures on the first serious camera he ever owned, a tiny Leica Rangefinder, and never got into SLRs and long lenses or any other gadgetry.

Like all the greats in their fields, whenever John talked about his work, it was always with disarming simplicity and clarity. Camera buffs would always go away disappointed because he shunned jargon and regarded all the technology in his world as simply an extension of the eye. And if you didn’t have an eye, the rest didn’t matter.

What all of this heartwarming hokum is getting at is this: I can’t help noticing that the camera buffs’ cousins seem to have captured center stage in U.S. advertising.

All the talk (much of it unpleasantly gleeful, in my view) seems to be about how ad agencies are over and interactive or CRM or digital or wireless or events or content or whatever is where it’s at.

Well, with apologies to the camera buffs’ cousins—the marcom technogeeks and fast-buck merchants and their growing number of bandwagon-jumping journalistic champions—that isn’t where it’s at at all: Whether you’re taking a photograph, painting a picture or persuading a consumer to buy/love your wares, your God-given talent for communication is where it’s at, irrespective of the type of camera, paintbrush, canvas or advertising medium.

New media can be learned; talent can’t. The very best in new media, like one of the few geniuses I know, Bob Greenberg of R/GA, understand this. That’s why R/GA is on fire.

Many commentators who are doubtless, sadly, listened to by many clients are determined to prove that so-called “traditional” ad agencies (their term, not the agencies’) have scant regard for new media. This simply isn’t true. I’ve yet to meet a top ad-agency creative in this country who isn’t a sponge for any and every way to communicate with more impact. Every now and then, however, ad-agency folk make the mistake of believing that they need to speak new-media jargon to be taken seriously. It just comes out wrong. The secret is to stop trying to fight a jaw-war instigated by companies trying to steal our clients’ hearts and their journo cohorts, stop setting up digital arms and interactive departments, stop talking altogether in fact and let your creative talent flow into all possible media.

Some “traditional” ad agencies, like DM9 in São Paulo, are already doing this. Their prize: Interactive Agency of the Year at Cannes this year. Enough said.