A Cautionary Tale

I once knew a creative team where the CW was a little more adored and befriended by agency leadership than the AD. Not sure why. Just the way it was. (It wasn’t me, by the way.)

At one point, the AD was frustrated enough with the situation to talk to our ECD about it. Hoping to convey her neglected value, she even said, “That [redacted] campaign we just did? [It had just appeared in Archive.] That was all my idea! I did the whole thing – he just changed one word in the tag!”

The reason I know she said that was because within a week, almost everyone in the creative department knew she had said it. That she would claim sole authorship on some work, however accurate, seemed, as one coworker put it, “so unprofessional.”

A couple morals to this story:

1. I have never heard a story about a creative who complained about anything to an ECD to their benefit. Complaining just doesn’t get you anywhere. Not even when it’s about your clients.

2. You can create an entire campaign on your own. But if you’re part of a team, you did the work as a team. A little humility is a good thing. (And if your partner’s not doing his or her share, it will show. You don’t have to put up any red flags. Your CDs are probably more aware than you know.)


Part of being a good creative is being a great partner

Once, another copywriter asked me how I was getting along with my art director. I told him we worked well together. Sometimes we got in some arguments about the work, but we were always respectful of each other’s opinions, and were quick to apologize to each other if the debate got too heated.

I took some pride in being able to argue with my art director. I felt it showed we both cared about the work. And to some degree, there might be some truth in that. But his reply made me see things differently. He simply said, “I don’t want to have to fight with my art director.”

I’ve since found, that if I’m arguing with my partner, it’s either because one of us is being stubborn (which can be remedied). Or because we have drastically different tastes (and if you don’t respect their taste, you should consider a change).

The Work Makes the King

Hugh Mcleod drew this. It appears in Seth Godin’s book The Dip. And it’s very true.

Except in advertising. At least the creative side. At least in agencies that care more about producing great work than about politics.

Creative advertising really is a meritocracy. If you have the best ideas, you get recognized. And the more you’re recognized, the more control you have over where you work, with whom, and on what accounts. That’s not to say you get a blank check, and can call your clients idiots. But being in demand gives you a little more control over your destiny.
So if you find yourself in this king/pawn situation, it’s probably because someone isn’t focused on the work.

Advice from Hal

This article originally appeared in September/October 2002 issue of Communication Arts. Hal Curtis is a brilliant creative, and this is one of the best articles ever written to students of advertising. We’ve linked to this article a couple of times, but since it’s become harder to track down online, we’re including it here so you can refer to it in the future. Enjoy.
A Note To Student Art Directors
by Hal Curtis

Dear Student Art Director,

In the last decade, advertising schools that teach you how to put together a portfolio have prospered. If you are currently enrolled in one of these fine institutions, well, good for you. But there’s something I’d like you to think about.

First, let me just say this. Advertising schools are a blessing to our industry. They provide a constant stream of talent that, more often than not, is able to acclimate to the agency environment and contribute.

Which is good.

But the focus of these institutions on advertising, advertising, advertising, has a price. There is a good chance you are not being exposed in depth to the things that constitute an art director’s fundamental foundation, that you are not collecting the tools that will enable you to exhibit a high level of executional craftsmanship.

Here’s the thing. While you’re getting a terrific education in the advertising aspect of art direction, you are studying less and less the fine-art aspect.

You are getting the ad part.

But not the art part.

Which is not so good.

I write this letter because I want you to become an art director. I don’t want you to become an ad director. I’m very sure we have enough of those already.

I should mention that one of the nice things about Wieden+Kennedy is that a whole bunch of people send their work to us. I’ve looked at literally hundreds of student art director portfolios over the last several years.

Your competition.

Here’s what I see:
1) I see competent conceptual thinking.
2) I see underdeveloped typographic skills.
3) I see underdeveloped layout skills.
4) I see the computer more than I see the art director.
5) I see work derivative of other advertising.

Hey, I’m really happy that today’s art director is more conceptual than ever. Because it’s a fact and that’s great. We all know that concept is king. But never, never, never—Young Student Art Director—underestimate the importance of execution.

Here’s a little creative director mathematics for you to think about.

Assume you are a creative director and you need to assign a project.

You have a good writer available. You need to team that person with a partner. Here’s the math part:

A) Good Writer + Art Director with strong conceptual and executional skills = A good idea fully-realized.

B) Good Writer + Art Director with strong conceptual, but poor executional skills = A good idea not fully-realized.

C) Good Writer + Graphic Designer with strong executional skills = A good idea fully-realized.

It’s complicated I know. But to the creative director, A and C are happy scenarios. But B? Decidedly not happy. It produces weak advertising.

What should you learn from this?

That unless you develop the ability to execute, the creative director might as well hire a graphic designer. And why not? They put it down better than you do. And a good writer is providing the conceptual part. So while your conceptual ability is a good thing, the fact that you can’t execute has hurt the final product.


Agencies are not in the business of training art directors. Agencies are in the business of selling a quality product to clients who are willing to pay for it. Agencies require personnel who contribute to the creation of that quality product.


As an aspiring art director, you may exit a technical school with a portfolio that can get you a job, but if you find yourself standing at a lightbox beside a print production manager unable to give competent direction because you don’t understand basic concepts like value and chroma, it’s a problem. And if I’m the creative director who hired the portfolio, it’s my problem.

The point of all these paragraphs and silly math equations is simply this: Make sure you know the fundamentals of art direction. If you are not getting enough of this currently, go get it on your own. It’s all out there if you’re willing to look for it.

I’m not an educator, but my guess is that the drop in the executional proficiency of today’s entry-level art director is due to some horrible collision of the computer and the curriculum.

The computer because it teaches art directors how to be lazy.

The curriculum because it focuses on making ads, not art.

Here are a few ideas. You’ve probably heard most of them before. That’s probably because they are important.

1) Learn how to draw. I never trust an art director who can’t draw. I know there are those rare examples of great art directors who can’t draw, but it still drives me crazy. Drawing is simply an understanding of how lines and shapes fit together to communicate an object. If you can draw, you can probably lay out a page. Or compose a television frame. Or do all sorts of other art director things.

2) Develop a passion for typography. Good type is rapidly becoming a lost art and that’s sad. If you don’t know what a ligature is or you’ve never heard of Jan Tschichold—go ask one of your instructors. I hope they know. And hand letter a couple of alphabets while you’re at it.

3) Understand value and how it behaves.

4) Become a closet editor. Other than music, it’s the single most effective way to impact a piece of film.

5) Make photography a hobby.

6) Use your hands. It’s the quickest way to make your work distinct because no one uses them anymore. I will quit the business the day “hands on” becomes an item on a pull-down menu. The computer is a wonderful tool, but your brain and your hands are much, much better. And they’re yours. Not everyone else’s.

7) Look to anything but other advertising for inspiration. There’s culture all around us. Pay attention.

And may I also add that Communication Arts is a wonderful publication.

Influence it. Don’t copy it.

Best regards,


How to handle quality, innovation and superior customer service

One day you may be faced with a client who wants to run an ad saying something like “We’re committed to service,” or “We have the highest standards of quality.”

Very talented and committed account management may be able to talk the client down off this ledge. If not, do the best you can, make the client happy, and move on to something else as quickly as possible.

In the meantime, here are a couple suggestions for making the most out of such an assignment:

COPYWRITERS: If the mandated message is something like “We have a dedicated and driven sales force.” Write your headlines in the voices of celebrities. How would Robert DeNiro say this? What about Alfred Hitchcock? Or Will Smith? Or Richard Simmons? Some voices will be better than others. But you’ll be able to inject some personality into what would otherwise be a pretty dull headline.

ART DIRECTORS: In my experience, if a client’s set on a message like this, they probably don’t have enough money for a photoshoots either. So you’re stuck with illustration or stock photography. If that’s the case, try laying the ad out as if you were working on a different category. Do the layout as if it were a new cola. Or a snowboard. Or an insurance company. Or an airline.

I’m not guaranteeing these exercises will help you win awards and get a book piece out of the assignment. But they will make it more enjoyable. And you may discover a look or a voice you can use a little later on.

Also, you don’t have to wait for an uninspiring brief to cross you desk to try these. They work perfectly well on fantastic products and fantastic briefs, too.

The Fourth Box

A friend of mine who works for a great agency sent me this picture. It’s how they sort the minibooks they receive.

If you click to enlarge, you’ll notice the three categories from right to left are COPYWRITERS, ART DIRECTORS, and THINK OF CAREER CHANGE. Granted, that’s pretty harsh. But as my friend pointed out, “I couldn’t believe how many of them were bad!”
So how do you avoid falling into that third box? Here’s my advice:
Don’t even worry about it. Chances are, your book is already better than 100% of them. What you need to be concerned with is being better than all the other books in the COPYWRITER and ART DIRECTOR slots. If this agency’s hiring at all, it’s probably for one team. Maybe two. That’s still a lot of books being sent home.
There’s a fourth box this picture doesn’t show. The fourth box is your book sitting on the hiring creative director’s desk and being shown around the agency.
What are you doing to make sure your book is in the Fourth Box?

The Wrong Idea

T.26 has some nice fonts. About once a month or so they send me an email with some of their latest creations. I’m a writer, but I appreciate nice typography.
I just received an email about SketchType, which they boast “makes it easy to incorporate the texture of hand-drawn lettering into any project without ever picking up a pencil.”
I find this a little ridiculous, and I hope you do to. If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing with passion. And that means picking up a pencil. Use these fonts as inspiration. But do not use these fonts.
Please aspire to be art directors and not just ad directors.

Perfect Copy vs. Perfect Art Direction

When I was a student, they copywriters had an entire semester dedicated to body copy. With good reason. It’s a dying art. But one copywriters should dedicate time to learn.

I remember a friend of mine (it was the blog’s co-author, as a matter of fact) had written a very nice piece of body copy. It flowed. It had rhythm. There was a cadence to it. (Always read your copy aloud after you’ve written it.) He really crafted it.

Then he gave it to his art director. It wasn’t fitting her layout, so without him knowing she contracted all the should nots to shouldn’ts, and eliminated some of the words that seemed repetitive. Short conversational lines seemed superfluous and were eliminated.

So who was right? The copywriter who wanted the copy to be as good as possible? Or the art director who wanted to layout to be as good as possible?

Art Directors and Animation

An art director friend is currently working on some animated TV spots. (There are two things most portfolio schools don’t really prepare you for: TV and animation.) He sent me the following thoughts:

More and more agencies are becoming digital and more and more digital shops are becoming AOR’s. [If you doubt this, check out Fallon’s new tool Skimmer. Ad agency as a web developer? Very cool.] So, what does this mean for Art Directors? They need to understand animation, be able to talk about it, share ideas about it, understand what it looks like. You get the point. They aren’t going to have to animate anything, they have developers and animators for that. Although, it wouldn’t hurt. However, AD’s will need to know how to talk with an animator and come up with ideas of how the animation works and what it looks like. The animator will have ideas on how something works, as well. But, it’s the AD’s responsibility to have the final product look like the way that they want it. This I didn’t know until I got here.

So what does this mean if you’re in portfolio school? Start by understanding the things you watch. Be able to communicate an idea. Don’t rely on adjectives like “cool” to do the heavy lifting. So much of this job is persuading. And so much of persuading is being able to communicate clearly.