Archive for August, 2010

[This essay originally appeared in Talent Zoo in 2009. It appears here in a slightly different form.]

I teach advertising at an arts university. And as such I am regularly in contact with artists and artists-in-training. And often they tell me that the reason they are in my class is that they want to use advertising as a job to support them while they get on their feet as artists.

The writers point to Fitzgerald and DeLillo and the visual artists point to Warhol and the musicians point to Barry Manilow. (Okay, I made that last one up.) They say “I could do what they did.” And I ask them what that is exactly – and they say “create art for commerce.”

But here’s the thing. We don’t create art for commerce. What we do is use artists to create advertising. This is not the same thing. And while it is not efficient, we can take comfort in the fact that nothing in the creative process is efficient.

If it’s not efficient then why do we do it? For two reasons. First, thanks to their course of study, artists are uniquely attuned to the subtleties of the tools advertising uses – sound, vision, word and movement. In this sense, they are the ultimate craftsmen at their trade – and we employ them because of their training and innate ability to do things with sound, vision, words and movement that others simply cannot do.

The second reason is because of art itself. Art is about a long term insight – one that resonates with people not just today, but tomorrow and next year and for years after that. And because art is about an emotional connection – one that defies the rational, that cuts through everything around it and grabs the viewer and demands attention, reverberating with that person in a way that non-art never does.

This tension between the short term commerce and the longterm art is, however, the basic dynamic that exists every day in every creative person in every creative department in every agency in the world. Every time they look at a brief, every time they concept, every time they present, every time the revise. And the only difference between what happens at some shop you consider “artistic” with one you consider to be “full of hacks” is where the participants have drawn the line.

What line? The line that defines whether, on this project, at this stage of the process, we’re thinking short term or long term.

Many clients think they want the former, and feel they are constantly pushing their agencies – usually through the persons of their account people – to achieve this. They have numbers to meet, bottom lines to respond to, bosses to accommodate. But the fact of the matter is that they actually want the latter. They think they want something that will close the sale today, but they really want something that will close the sale every day. They just feel more comfortable being able to recognize what will make an impact today, because they are living and breathing in the “today”.

But when clients start talking about something that is “breakthrough”, about something that “cuts through the clutter”, about something that is “compelling” – and when they start using examples like Bernbach’s VW ads, or the Mac “1984” spot or Nike’s “Just Do It” campaign, what they are really saying is “show me something that will beat everybody to tomorrow. Show me something that will not just answer the specific needs of this creative brief, and therefore be useless to me next week when the populace has moved on. Show me something that will change the game for my brand, because I know that only by changing the game can I truly succeed.”

And thus we learn that creatives are not the only ones experiencing this tension between the short term commerce and the long term art.

So what do I tell my students, these artists-in-waiting who are considering going into advertising? I tell them this: if you want to be an artist, be an artist. Really. No harm, no foul. But if you’re interested in using the long term insight skills you’ve been honing lo these many years to create short term solutions – short term solutions that still, somehow, resonate long term – if you’re not only capable of making that intellectual jump, but if indeed, that challenge actually excites you, then stick around.

Class dismissed.


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