Advertising work can be both demanding and rewarding in equal measure. The trick is to make yourself an indispensable link between brands and the buying public, connecting the value of one to the needs of the other...
In the battle for the hearts and minds of modern consumers, creativity has become the weapon of choice for self-conscious brands. And while this job becomes increasingly dif. cult as audiences grow ever more critical, new opportunities for advertising have arisen. As traditional mediums have fractured and new ones enter the fray, advertising strives even harder not to look like advertising. For the creative professional, there's rarely been more potential.
But despite these changes, one thing that seems to remain constant is the seemingly stoic approach taken by the industry to newcomers. This is one field which will never knowingly tolerate anything less than the best from its talent. Unfortunately, knowing what constitutes the best isn't always that easy and the aforementioned fracturing isn't helping the situation either.
From TV, the web, print and illustration, we've consulted a selection of experienced individuals from advertising's various media to see what knowledge can be gleaned from their hard work. The ad world, it seems, isn't all that hard to understand.
Which would you like first?
The good news is that the advertising industry values its raw materials. As a working illustrator, Henry Obassi has direct experience: "In advertising there is a de. nite element of respect that I personally have experienced from the majority of agencies." That's comforting news and frequently at odds with experiences in other avenues, as Henry is happy to testify: "This is definitely not the case with other areas of the commercial market involving illustrative commissions, where blatant piss-taking has become commonplace."
Paul Matthaeus is CEO and Chief Creative Officer of Seattle-based ad production firm Digital Kitchen, and he agrees that the creative still has leverage: "Advertising is still embraced as a valuable endeavour by the world's major brands," he says. "Spot advertising is a highly concentrated and mercurial art form - it demands a lot from the creative." Put these two factors together and you have a lucrative but very closely scrutinised handshake between the creative and commercial worlds.
And, of course, the business is renowned for its professionalism, which can be both a blessing and a curse, as Henry Obassi explains: "When ad agencies are commissioning, they know exactly what they want visually, making illustrators' lives relatively straightforward." That's a good thing if you're fully on top of what you do, but the concept has a wider application. "Generally speaking, just be professional in all matters concerned with the job," says Henry. He means all aspects: "Shit, like time keeping, being contactable, being prepared to change images with minimum fuss." These sound like small beer next to the production of great visuals, but the ad game is much more about relationships.
Bill Cumming is Creative Director at graphic design firm The Nest. Having just joined forces with ad agency St Luke's, Bill and his team have an interesting viewpoint. His opening remark keeps the theme going: "In advertising there are more retained relationships with clients. Most other types of design work are project based." This means you need to be able to communicate. "This might take longer than working on a project-to-project basis," he says, but it gives you the opportunity to develop an understanding and even produce some interesting work.
The right stuff
So what qualities does it take to break into the advertising game? "Many, which makes this field tough to penetrate," says Paul Matthaeus. He gives a few examples that always go down well: "Classically trained designers that work fluidly in motion; animators that work with music; designers that are strong conceptualists." It looks like you need to be able to bridge a lot of gaps.
A former Director of Photography, Peter Thwaites now works as a Commercial Director at premier ad production company Gorgeous. He fits the multi-skilled bill pretty neatly.
Unsurprisingly, he sees things similarly to Paul: "It's different to other types of work - you're the head of a creative process." This position is compounded by the scale of the operation: "It's smaller, so by definition more has to be generated from me than a team, as it would in a larger production."
Bill Cumming comes at it from another angle: "I'd say the need for teamwork is important." This isn't the contradiction it seems because if you can't do it yourself, you have to be able to pull together. "You need to be open to ideas wherever they come from," he says. "You also need the ability to think fast and be critically objective." Paul meets him there: "Naturally, some of our people are better at one than the other, but it's our job to make those disciplines coalesce in a way that delivers a very precise intangible."
And the greater part of teamwork is understanding what your fellow team-mates do. Henry illustrates the point: "When I work I am constantly aware of how my work is to be produced. Having that understanding makes life easier for the art director." All of this helps you develop a good working relationship so that the technicalities become less of an obstacle to the production of top-class work.
The rigours of difference
But there's more to it than that: advertising has an insatiable appetite for originality. Few insiders would disagree with Paul Matthaeus when he expresses his belief that: "It's more demanding than casual spectators are inclined to believe. It's very deceptive - so much needs to be taken into consideration: the brand aura, the competitive landscape, rewarding the consumer for their attention."
None of this is straightforward, but what it means, according to Paul, is: "Getting this kind of work is based on a track record and that's tough to develop given all the elements that go into it." Henry will tell you the same thing: "Ad work can be harder to get, especially if your work is considered 'niche'." Somehow you have to offer the right blend of 'the same but different' so the agencies know what they're getting and what they're getting is 'different'.
Web design company Unit9 is busy beautifying one of the newest and least understood outlets at the advertiser's disposal. Yates Buckley, Technical Director, conveys the Unit9 proposition: "The difference is that our speciality is not in 'producing' but in 'presenting' online content." If you didn't get it first time, here it is again: "What makes Unit9 different is in the way we translate and communicate online content." The point is that you have to understand your medium and offer a way to master, or at least tame it a little, on behalf of your client.
Yates also confirms what we've heard about the other media: "Advertising work is probably harder to get." This is particularly true for independents: "A lot of advertising companies either have their own in-house interactive team or collaborate with a particular digital agency that produces most of their online content." It's relationships, you see. And what's there at the beginning? "The first impression that's left after visiting a site is like the first impression one gets by meeting someone in person," says Yates. "It's especially important if it serves as a selfpromotional tool."
The brains behind it
"Rarely are we hired just as an executional arm without a brain attached," says Paul Matthaeus. The usual experience at Digital Kitchen is that agencies are looking for something above and beyond, or as Paul himself puts it: "Usually our clients are asking us to plus their boards or scripts on some level." And in spite of the generally conservative approach of most clients, advertising remains a field dedicated to breaking creativity: "Despite the corporate committees, 'engineering consent' to do interesting work is often less arduous in traditional advertising than with most entertainment studios," says Paul. As in the US, so in the UK, "Believe it or not."
The progress from client to production is pretty standard across the various media. Henry takes up the story: "The art director develops a campaign strategy to promote a particular brand. If it involves illustration as the main visual medium, he or she will shortlist image makers that fit with the concept." This is when the artists in question will be called on to make their first contribution, to pitch for the work. Once the pitching stage is over, the artist will work in close collaboration with the art director till the fat lady sings.
Surprisingly, the artist is rarely pressurised to 'sell sell sell'. "The agency comes up with the idea," says Peter Thwaites. "My job is to find the best way to film it." The art director meanwhile, acts as a kind of interface between artist and commerce: "Fundamentally my work isn't about selling tomatoes," Peter adds. "I'm there to interpret an idea. They are trying to sell tomatoes." When you think about it, that makes sense - after all, if he were good at selling tomatoes, he'd be working on a market stall, not directing cameras.
It's not all roses though, as Yates Buckley points out: "As we collaborate with the advertising industry, there's not always the creative freedom that we might wish for." But even here it's a question of balance: "But simultaneously we've always felt able to contribute ideas and take part in the evolution of projects." You have to be realistic, advertising is very highly scrutinised, measured and studied from all sides. There will inevitably be constraints.
Henry Obassi is totally down the line: "Advertising is always gonna be about the generation of money and that will never change." This is neither good nor bad, says the artist: "I am not soap-boxing here." Generally, creatives are involved because the agency believes they have what it takes to make a product attractive to the right people. "That for me is the most important thing to grasp," says Henry. "Yes you want to create visually stunning work and have the general public empathise with your artistic catharsis, personal therapy or world messages for peace. But at the end of the day that is not why one was hired."