Recently British Design and Art Direction sent out a mailing to its members asking for votes on who might join its Executive Committee. The candidates were entirely separated into design candidates and art director candidates: a symbolic and a paper-wasting act. They should be merged, not factionalised.
Advertising people, some creatives included, often don’t understand the craft skills of design. They don’t know how to judge it, are afraid of it, ergo often reject it. They also think of design as two-dimensional, concentrating on graphic and logo design, rather than being aware of design’s huge spread from workplace design to retail space to products themselves.
In 1993, when I was a managing director at J Walter Thompson, we set up a series of master-classes in an attempt to increase our sense of advertising and other craft skills. The first speaker was Paul Arden, a hugely gifted art director and, now, commercials director.
His view was that there is something fascinating in most logos, whether you like them or not, that is uniquely about the essence and genesis of a brand. He believed that, rather than see a logo as a nuisance resigned to an end-frame or right-hand corner, you should grow a campaign outwards from the logo because it is the brand essence. He mesmerisingly described his own decisions on advertising design: such as literally battering a typeface for a campaign for the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children about battered children.
People like Arden are the inextricable link between advertising and design in its broadest sense, but most people in advertising aren’t educated in the role of typefaces, how to structure paragraphs and punctuate copy, the psychology of colour and other craft skills.
Another reason why advertising and design don’t understand each other enough is more structural. Advertising, for all its talk of integration, and despite the fact that its best practitioners are clearly multidisciplinary, is split into separate departments of account management, planning and creative. While some design consultancies have strategists and account management, many people in design are “planner, account man and creative” all wrapped up in one person. How right, how efficient and how refreshing.
The main reason, however, for the lack of intimacy between advertising and design is what I would call “the old integration”. Most ad agencies’ and clients’ tired view of “integrated marketing” is a pyramid with advertising at the top and “sales promotion” at the bottom. Design often doesn’t even feature in this pyramid. It’s a discipline that’s off to one side, perhaps orbiting the pyramid, but distant.
This distance borne of fear and misunderstanding has now turned to jealousy. Many design companies, such as Wolff Olins or Interbrand Newell and Sorrell, have got higher up the corporate ladder than ad agencies. They have won more trust, and on a more prosaic level, won a higher margin.
To be precise, Willott Kingston Smith calculates the average operating profit margin of the top 50 advertising agencies to be just below 7 per cent, whereas design companies often achieve margins of 12-13 per cent. Trust and definable skill equal margin.
In truth, there are also many similarities between the two industries. There are a number of design consultancies which are good brand strategists, but average at design itself: “pseudo McKinsey’s in trendy clothing”. That describes the majority of ad agencies.
There are design groups built around the intuition of a few brilliant individuals, but weak on strategy. This describes an interesting and successful minority of ad agencies. I won’t name any of the above. We all know who they are.
The rarest, and rightly most revered, breed are those which balance analysis with instinct, theory with practice. Here, I will name ad agencies such as BMP and Bartle Bogle Hegarty, and design groups such as The Partners, Lambie-Nairn@The Brand Union and Wolff Olins. The best thinkers are makers and the best makers are thinkers. Thinking with an end product in mind – a retail space, a museum, an ad, a logo – is the sharpest kind of thinking. It stops the yawning gap between theorists – management consultants, city advisers et al – and executors such as designers and ad agencies.
There is a “new integration” to be seized for a new millennium, and the new DNA of digital technology. The “new integration” is not a pyramid with advertising at the top, but rather a virtuous circle or onion of concentric circles. The inner core of the circle is understanding not just a brand’s essence, but a brand’s community.
The next core is advertising and design in all its various forms, 2D and 3D, as the most powerful distillations of that brand essence and community. The outer core is then the further, often tactical, expressions of sales promotion, PR and direct marketing.
What is key is to recognise the priorities in terms of target audience. Staff, or professional partners who are a kind of “extended staff”, who live the brand every day and use it as the source of their livelihood should be the most important audience. Second come consumers, and third shareholders. Ironically, that way everyone comes first.
Often these days one person can be all three things in relation to one brand. Take, for example, a member of Marks & Spencer’s staff who also holds shares and shops in Marks & Spencer. He or she wants their shares or share options to grow healthily, but not at the expense of either making Marks & Spencer goods too premium-priced for them as a customer, or de-motivating them as an employee. Indeed, he or she knows that being treated as a good employee is the productivity key to shareholder return on investment and customer value-for-money.
If you treat the staff of a brand as the most important audience, it forces a very good set of disciplines on advertising. It means you have to create a campaign that employees can live by, and live out, rather than some irrelevant or superficial promise that the staff will know is just a marketing ploy.
Such thinking also places a healthy discipline on different types of design.
It means that annual reports could and should be written as a vital communication document to employees, to which shareholders are allowed to be privy, rather than it being the other way round.
It means that brand identity guidelines have to be made part of the oral culture of the company not dusty manuals filed away and occasionally consulted with a resentful grunt. Faced with 22 000 of the most intelligent and cynical employees in the UK, Martin Lambie-Nairn made a charming, honest video about the BBC logo change for BBC staff, which achieved precisely this.
The design of work environments, as living embodiments of a brand culture, would rightly rise up the agenda.
There is one area of design that, at its best, does give the staff as much as the customers: retail design.
Pret A Manger, for example, proves the virtue of what many people are talking about, but very few are putting into action; holistic brand management. Everything about Pret A Manger illustrates an organising intelligence: the clean lines of its stainless steel displays, which maximise browsing potential, but also minimise the time taken to select, pay and collect; its choice of music not muzak; its staff recruitment and reward scheme; the phone number for co-founder Julian Metcalfe printed on the carrier-bags. Pret A Manger puts its staff first, who then serve the customers well, which, in turn, deliver outstanding results to the shareholders.
Retailers have to behave holistically. They’re like those restaurants where you can see into the kitchen. The mechanism and guts of their brand are exposed to the public’s view. But these days all brands should design and advertise as well as the best retailers, learning from their qualities of honesty, functionality and customer-grabbing flair.
The most fundamental design is, of course, product design.
James Dyson produced the best-selling vacuum cleaner ever invented – now selling over 50 000 units a month – by observing a problem and solving it. Such was his passion and self-belief that he built 5000 prototypes and spent two years in the wilderness trying to find someone to licence the product in Europe without giving up. He failed because the multinationals were unwilling to invest in a product which would mean an end to bag replacement.
George Bernard Shaw said: “All great truths begin as blasphemies.” Dyson’s experience shows that the same could be said of great brands, and it was only thanks to the ever technologically restless and open-minded Japanese that Dyson got his break. Despite owning this massive step-change in technology, Dyson has continued to innovate. For example, he designed the DC02 to be stair-hugging. Great brands are built on brilliant observations, and brilliant design.
Brands without truly differentiating design – by truly differentiating, I exclude all the cosmetic attempts to redesign a brand by simply putting the logo in trendy lower-case lettering and a minimalist typeface – are brands without a passion, an organising intelligence.
In Marketing Week, Alan Mitchell talked about the phenomenon of “passion brands”. “The first thing a passion brand does is deny and reverse the number one rule of marketing,” he wrote.
Instead of trying to find out what its customers want in order to deliver it, it does the exact opposite. It starts out with what inspires it and then says to the public at large “would you like to buy into the passion?”. The great brands, from both a design and advertising perspective, are passion brands, be they Volkswagen, Sony, Nike, The Body Shop or Levi’s. The reason why Bartle Bogle Hegarty and BMP can do fresh, wonderfully-crafted ads for Levi’s and Volkswagen, respectively, for many decades is the same reason that their product design is ever-fresh and their logos are perennially relevant: a relentless passion.
Advertising should see design as its best and most important partner, and vice versa, in expressing the unique behaviour and essence of a brand. James Dyson, David Abbott and Terence Conran are engaged in the same task: crafting and designing something unique and compelling.