David Bernstein: Reluctant bedfellows

Design and advertising have an uneasy relationship, says David Bernstein, but they should stop squabbling and realise that the brand is the most important thing

I am intrigued by the recent discussion in these pages (Private View, DW 16 February and Opinion, DW 23 February) regarding the relationship between advertising and design – and how their practitioners regard each other.

The old arguments are the best, because nobody has settled them to everybody’s satisfaction. Indeed, given the imprecision of the terminology, it is virtually impossible to do so. For example, what is “graphic design”?

Coincidentally, I received a letter from an ex-colleague now working in a major design consultancy in Australia. With a background in corporate identity, he has recently been involved in meeting each of his client’s four agencies. “This was something of a revelation, they don’t really like design consultancies, do they? But then so many of them equate branding with their next ad campaign and nothing more,” he said.

This is not universal, but I recognised the indictment of narrow mindedness or, to be more fair, specialisation. If your tool is a hammer every problem looks like a nail. Ad agency people would probably disagree with Paul Linnell’s assertion that “graphic design is a means of which advertising is just one application of many” (Letters, DW 23 February). They might be “miffed” by Quentin Newark’s distinction, “advertising is the promotion of a product or brand, and it is purely that, while, generally speaking, design is the organisation and articulation of that product itself” (Private View, DW 16 February). Notice that this distinction uses the term “design” rather than “graphic design”. Though these two gentlemen may differ semantically, they agree about design’s central and superior position. Advertising is a subset of design. The Australian ad agencies might suggest it’s the other way around.

I am reminded of that classic Saul Steinberg map of the US which has a large New York in the foreground, a small California just behind and odd places in the far distance. Ask the ad person and the graphic designer each to draw a map of marketing and you would get similar self-serving representations.

It is all a question of perspective. When I joined the agency business, things were very clear, advertising was a means to an end, a means of communicating product difference with the ultimate purpose of generating sales. About 20 years later advertising had moved to centre stage, become sexy – and an end in itself. Instead of being the means to an end, a means of communicating product difference, advertising itself became the difference.

It happened this way. Advertising embraced the techniques of TV and used them to convey brand values. In many product areas one of these values was the advertising itself. As they used to say in the lager business, the consumer is drinking the advertising. It was a small step for the advertising business to become the brand, and for ad people to assume an even greater sense of their own self-worth.

Today the arrogance has mellowed with the fragmentation of media and extension of media choice. Conventional advertising is now regarded as a candidate means. So the consultancy has come to terms with an alternative slate of options. Graphic design is another candidate means.

To regard one as a subset of the other serves no purpose – apart from self-aggrandisement. Central is neither advertising nor design. Central is the brand, and while agencies argue, the key communication decisions are being made elsewhere by the brand’s guardian.

So where does this guardianship lie? With the client? Ultimately yes, but guardianship can be delegated. To whom? Within the company, the brand manager maybe? The job title suggests so, but the role is seen as temporary, a career move. A good case can be made for both the agency and the design consultancy, but, unless each rids itself of its restricted view of the brand communication landscape, then the client will not be best served. He or she could, of course, keep it in-house, select specialist communications professionals from various disciplines as and when necessary and thus guarantee brand coherence.

In the golden age of Guinness all important communication was vetted by the main board. When the members were presented with an ad or a design they would ask themselves “is it Guinnessy?”. They all knew what they meant. They would not have spent too much time in the demarcations and structures which obsess us. It was all commercial art wasn’t it?

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