Learn from advertising

As an advertising veteran who now works in design, Steve Richards is perfectly placed to comment on design’s growing role in the marketing services mix

Some designers ask me, ‘Is there anything we can learn from advertising?’ My response? Yes in a word – confidence. Design has a lot more going for it than some designers seem to believe.

As it emerges out of recession, I can sense a new, potent air of positivity in design. There’s a belief in the solution, in the craft, in the people, a focus on elegant solutions. There’s a growing, infectious confidence. The design industry may have taken a bath over recent years, so to speak, but as a consequence it now seems fresher than its richer cousins in the marketing services sector. So designers, stop giving yourself a hard time.

In contrast, the confidence exuded by any ad agency is overwhelming. They’re all so confident, more assured than designers. But is it well-founded? There’s a big lesson here. The ad industry, whose collective self-confidence has been deteriorating for years, is prone to self-analysis, to petulant regret about how it used to be. Energy is expended on blind faith in the 30-inch TV solution by the old school and frustrating debate about integrated solutions, which still focus on the executional elements of the end game, rather than the business issues that they are meant to be addressing. But you’d never suspect that anyone in the industry was worried about these issues from their demeanour.

Don’t get me wrong, you still occasionally see the radiant flash of genius sparking out of adland’s darkening star – sharp insight and simple, direct, bright and witty observations that instantly hit home and are remembered weeks later. Clearly, some agencies still strive for the magic. They can still attain it with simple, relevant ideas that touch people’s emotions. But we see less and less that is immune to the globalisation trend that is afflicting the sector. Most ads are now created according to the lowest common creative denominator, which is bland no matter what language it is dubbed into.

Great, effective advertising taps into the customer’s emotions. It imbues the client’s offer with meaning. Great design, on the other hand, taps into the emotion of a client’s business and its offer. Both are driven by smart insight and understanding; both use a look, feel and tone in an effort to alter perception and behaviour. But one thing that advertising has in abundance is the power of language. As the design industry continues to spread its influence deeper into organisations (something advertising isn’t doing, by the way), it needs to learn to harness this power more effectively.

Design’s strength lies in its ability to build a powerful visual language for both a business and a brand. It pays closer attention to the detail, and does so consistently, which leads to solutions that can travel seamlessly across geographic boundaries, without compromise. Design can make you fall in love with something – ads only help you express it.

The old, unhealthy internecine warfare still exists in the dark recesses of adland. The account handlers, looking to pass on the brand manager’s demands for change, still fear the wrath of the creatives, who are led by the inveterately client-phobic creative director. It’s taken the people who come up with the ideas too long to acknowledge that clients have a right to their demands – they’re always backed up by the terrifying wrath of the creative director, who usually responds by saying, ‘The client doesn’t understand quality.’ (Expletives deleted). But ad executives are belatedly realising clients need and demand direct access to those who provide the magic, not just those who represent them. Designers, on the other hand, have always been client-centric. They’re already fluent in business-speak, taking time to build both relationships and respect for their craft. Of course clients understand quality.

Some designers are still mesmerised by those trappings of advertising that now belong to the past – they look to their advertising brethren through rose-tinted glasses – the big sexy campaigns, huge salaries, a past the industry itself still hankers after. Beneath its shiny facade, advertising’s self confidence is surely ebbing. Conversely, I believe that designers can look to the future with assurance. They have the potential to deliver long-term growth and engender lasting consumer love. Oi, designers! Be more confident about what you do.

After all, we’re all in the same game. Marketing, branding, communications… whatever, are all trying to achieve change. Positive change for our client’s business. The way we deliver solutions and how deep the influence is felt by both the client and consumers is the debate.

Design must continue to look to the future – building solutions that last, that deliver the promised growth in the long term, not just next week. While adland talks about the future – a lot – I think it still hankers for those glorious days when the client was content with a quick fix.

Steve Richards is chief operating officer at Wolff Olins and former managing director at Grey Worldwide

Latest articles