Strange bedfellows

Giles Keeble looks at the strange and often strained relationship between advertising and design

Design and advertising are both creative businesses, yet often they don’t seem to mix. This is of particular interest to me because when my group, McBains, merges properly with Horseman Cooke in our new building, we will be operating as one creative department with a wide experience of advertising and design.

We are all looking forward to it, but we are aware of differences. I have been trying to establish how much differences are real rather than habitual; natural rather than historical.

It seems to me that the creative business world has become very specialised. You are either an advertising agency, or a direct marketing agency, or a sales promotion agency, or a package design company or a corporate report design company and so on – even though a multidisciplined approach is becoming all the rage, this can still attract the Jack-of-all-trades criticism. These specialisms are invariably at the executional, rather than the strategic, end.

I do not doubt that the specialisms require specific knowledge and experience – the best use of databases, knowledge of “cardboard engineering”, the use of coupons, telephone marketing, and the like. But important as they are, they are not the starting point. Ideas, based on the proper understanding of the business, the brand and the consumer, should be the starting point.

Advertising and design face their own problems. As the chairman of Unilever said recently, he sees an alarming discrepancy between what brands are going to need and what contemporary agencies are good at delivering. Adrian Cadbury said that many businesses don’t need advertising, let alone an agency – though I’d like to know how he defines advertising.

Design is still beset by the problem of being taken seriously as a means of adding value to a brand and a business, and of getting paid decently. The exception to this last point might be corporate identity.

But as one senior designer said to me: “Wolff Olins has done more damage to the design business than anyone. Clients now think it costs 4m to design a logo.”

There is also antipathy between many designers and advertising creative departments (that is if they think about each other at all, other than at the British Design and Art Direction elections). At one level, I think there is the feeling among some designers of “I could do that!”; and a corresponding feeling among advertising art directors that they could do design, but what’s the point when they could do a TV ad instead.

The nature of the two businesses can confirm the stereotype. Advertising, at its most glamorous, is about film and big budgets. Design is about details and small budgets. This can breed arrogance and laziness on the one side, and myopic preciousness on the other.

The ways of working, and money, are probably at the heart of the differences. Designers work on a project basis. Even when the project is a success, there is rarely a long-term relationship, let alone a contract.

An article in the latest Communication Arts Design Annual by Ellen Shapiro echoes this observation. She asked many of the top designers in the US what they did to cultivate successful long-term relationships and got a variety of responses from, “even long-term clients are looking for cheaper vendors”, to “hit and run” and even “date rape”.

San Francisco designer Michael Mabry said: “We seem to be existing day in and day out on one night stands – one package, one identity, one brochure – and we do twice as much work for the same money as five years ago… The root of the problem is that we want to find interesting work, and clients want to buy a commodity.”

Whatever the problems facing traditional advertising agencies, the lack of relatively long-term relationships is less of a problem. Of course, accounts are moving all the time, but they don’t move after each job. Agencies can therefore be much clearer about how much money they are likely to make in a given year, and because the media budgets are so much bigger, they make more money; which means that people in advertising creative departments, get paid more than their counterparts in design. And, as one senior designer put it, often for doing less work (or less observable work).

Design companies are often small companies. A partner might take the brief, do the budget, do the work and present the work, all on his or her own. That doesn’t happen in advertising. To borrow the words of The Partners David Stuart, advertising deals with “intrigue” more than “information”, whereas design usually has to get across a lot of information and, it is hoped, does this in an intriguing way. Even in advertising, print campaigns are more labour intensive and earn less money than TV campaigns.

My hope is that if we can individually and collectively champion the value of relevant creativity attached to relevant ideas, the distinctions will only be important when it comes to the executions of agreed solutions, whatever the media. Our clients, as much as us, desperately need new ideas of all kinds. When these are advertising and design ideas, we still need the very best craft skills to get them noticed and to make them mean something.

Giles Keeble is executive creative director of advertising and design consultancy McBains.

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