The Last Word

New British Design & Art Direction president Larry Barker is a man with a mission – to champion the written word.

If Richard Seymour managed to dig product design deeper into British Design & Art Direction’s culture during his 12 months as president, we can expect his successor, Larry Barker, to do even greater things for his “special subject”, writing. For while Seymour’s efforts were, by definition, aimed at boosting D&AD’s design followers, writing is relevant to both design and advertising camps.

“Writing is alive. Copy is dead,” says Barker, creative director at London ad agency BMP DDB and a heavyweight in every sense, in a bid to redefine his own trade. “There is nothing cooler than writing. Art directors have had their own way for too long.”

The word “copy” is banned henceforth from any D&AD dealings, he says, including its awards categories, in a bid to bring the organisation in line with modern communications.

Barker says that the introduction of the design writing category in the D&AD awards last year, won by acclaimed wordsmith Jeremy Bullmore, kicked off the thought. Now writing looks set to be his rally cry throughout his 12-month presidency. An initiative is already in place, involving D&AD, together with The Guardian newspaper and the Co-operative Bank, to foster young writers through a student competition – testament, perhaps, to Barker’s influence during his year as president-elect.

Nor is Barker’s interest in boosting writing’s standing in the creative industries likely to die at the end of his presidential term. It is a subject close to the heart of his running mate from design, D&AD president-elect David Stuart of The Partners, whose book Smile in the Mind, co-authored with design writer Beryl McAlhone, is a classic. We can expect Stuart to continue the campaign when he takes over next January.

For Barker, writing could also be a handy link between advertising and design, not least in the D&AD Awards. If there’s scope for categories to converge, bringing the two membership strands together, it’s on the writing side, he maintains.

But while he has pledged to work with Stuart to look at ways of shortening the gap between advertising and design, he’s less committed to the idea of complete convergence. “At the heart of the divide,” he says, “is what people are forced into in their business dealings” – client expectations, budgets and the like.

But while the barriers are beginning to break down, fuelled, Barker believes, by advertising being diluted to meet the demands of myriad communications channels, he reckons there’s a benefit in keeping separate.

“On balance, I prefer the status quo. When it works well, it can be brilliant. A degree of separation and autonomy is required to maintain that certain frisson that occurs when we get it right. Like good vinaigrette, I prefer my oil and vinegar mixed fresh every time. The ready-mixed can be a tad bland,” he says.

Of more concern to him is taking the UK creative industry out of traditional “creative hot spots”, such as London’s Soho, and putting it into an international arena. To this effect, he is working on the idea of an International Creative Forum around the D&AD Awards bash, to draw international creatives to London. He says schemes such as the annual Cannes festival and the US Clio Awards are not that great in themselves, but they attract high calibre creatives from across the globe and feed the culture of the international industry.

“We’ll start quite small and see how it goes,” he says, to identify what’s feasible. But the long-term aim “is to confirm D&AD’s position as the best in the world. We do some of the best advertising and design in this country,” he says.

To keep the standards of creativity up, Barker is also keen to foster training through D&AD – very much in line with its remit as an educational charity. Already on the agenda is a pilot “basic” training programme this summer for young creatives.

Barker is concerned that apprenticeship no longer happens in the creative industries, particularly in advertising, and that people in their 30s often haven’t learned “the nuts and bolts stuff” of their craft. Degrees and the like “are not that good at preparing you for the real world”, he says, yet a student on a work placement might find themselves working on a commercial within three days of joining, whereas ten or so years ago, they’d have had to be in the job for three years. The idea of the training is to “plug that skills gap”, he says.

He’s also keen to promote “inspirational” education “to let people fall back in love with their craft”, he says. “In the 1980s, the idea was everything [in advertising],” he says. “But it shouldn’t stop there. People need to be reinspired [about the craft side of the business].”

Barker describes advertising as a “blokish” business, which is perhaps why so few women make it through the creative ranks. High on his agenda is research to find out what happens to the women who leave college and “disappear”. If they can be persuaded back, he reckons, the industry and its output will have a better balance.

Discussions are already underway with a research organisation to this effect, says D&AD chief executive David Kester. Barker, meanwhile, talks of tapping into BMP DDB’s global research network. He might do well to use similar resources to find out why so few women rise to the top on the creative side of design.

D&AD is in good shape, Barker maintains, but it’s time to plan for the longer term. He’s keen to evolve a five-year plan for the organisation, working with the executive team, the elected “management” and past presidents on its vision for the future.

Part of D&AD’s strength, he says, is its 1600-strong membership, “our secret weapon”, according to his presidential “manifesto”. The aim is to grow the membership to 2000, with Glenn Tutssel of The Brand Union chairing an action group to build it, to boost its standing and its coffers.

“We’ll look inside first [at lapsed members and the like],” says Barker, adding that more dialogue is needed between D&AD and its members. He cites the Green Room section of the D&AD website as among the new benefits – a searchable membership directory and global forum to which members will have restricted access. But the organisation will also be looking at D&AD’s magazine Ampersand and other membership benefits, he says. “We need to give them a bit more than the ‘book’ [the D&AD Annual],” he adds.

Barker has laid out a big agenda for the next 12 months – a tall order for Kester’s tight executive team. But with many of his plans already written into D&AD’s programme in some form, we can expect a good deal to be achieved. n

Larry Barker

1984Joined ad agency BMP, working on campaigns such as Channel 4, Fosters lager and Alliance & Leicester

1988Moved to Abbott Mead Vickers

1989Joined DDB under Tony Cox. DDB merged with BMP, under a deal with US marketing services giant Omnicom

1990Moved to Bartle Bogle Hegarty, working on award-winning campaigns for Sony, Olivio, Häagen Dazs and Levi’s

1992The Swimmer ad for Levi’s won a grand prix at the British Television awards and a silver award at Cannes

1993 Häagen Dazs campaign won all top honours at the National Newspaper Awards

1994Joined WCRS and became joint creative director, working on award-winning campaigns for Caffrey’s and First Direct (with Bob Mortimer). Was responsible for the launch and stewardship of Orange

1998 Joined BMP DDB as creative director

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