By Chris Staples
Art directors used to have it so easy.
In the pre-Internet age, they could get by with relatively few specialized technical skills. Comps were usually loose affairs, scribbled in black and white. For big presentations, freelance artists were hired to do marker renderings.
Once an ad was approved, ADs marked up comps and copy sheets with instructions for typesetters, who often plied their craft off-site.
What a difference an Internet makes. Now even the most junior AD has all the tools to create virtually finished ads on their laptop— from Photoshop, to micro-stock and royalty-free fonts. Tight photo-comps are now the norm in most agencies— for jobs large and small.
I think this has had disastrous consequences for both ADs and their craft. Why?
Tight comps move the focus away from ideas to execution. The surest way to see if an ad has a strong idea is to see if it passes “The Napkin Test.” If an ad can make you laugh out loud when it’s rendered in black and white on a piece of paper, it will only get better in its finished form. Scribbled comps force you to evaluate the naked idea with no distractions.
Tight comps allow clients to focus on the wrong things. It shouldn’t matter whether the girl’s shirt is red or blue at the presentation stage. When clients see a tight comp, it’s only natural they think they’re seeing the final ad. In fact, many will hold the creative team hostage to the comp, expecting the final version to be exactly what was sold.
Tight comps lock in technique way too early. In the old days, ADs would sweat over fonts and kerning for days and even weeks. Tight comps mean many of those decisions have been made before the concept is even presented. Ads don’t get better in the production process— which is why so many these days look and feel half-baked.
Tight comps steal time from the creative process. We have a saying at Rethink: Your best idea is either your first or your hundredth— but you won’t know until you’ve done a hundred ideas. It takes days (and often nights) to create tight comps. Coming up with more rough ideas is a far better use of that time.
Tight comps prevent truly original ideas. To create a tight comp in a limited amount of time, you need to be able to quickly assemble all of the ad’s elements from existing sources. Unoriginal elements often make for unoriginal ads. Truly groundbreaking ideas are hard to comp tightly because they’ve never been done.
Tight comps make art directors’ lives hell. It’s becoming standard practice for copywriters to knock off at 6:00, leaving their partners to toil late into the night finishing their comps. This is not only unfair, it’s incredibly destructive to ADs. They run the very real risk of professional and personal burnout.
So what’s a better way? How about the good old one? If it was good enough for Bernbach, it’s good enough for us. We have a rule at Rethink: Art directors are not allowed to turn on the computer until the idea is sold.
Some of them squawk and accuse us of being luddites. Until they realize their ads (and their lives) improve immeasurably once they ditch their digital ball and chain.
We sell most of our ideas as black and white scribbles. If we need to, we’ll show visual or type reference so clients can get a better idea of the finished ad. But we still allow ourselves plenty of time to experiment with fonts, composition and photography during the production process.
To illustrate the point, here are two mini case studies— one involving a more visual idea, and one involving a more traditional concept with a headline.
Art Director: Nicolas Quintal
Writer: Jason Perdue
This is the actual comp we presented to our Playland client:
To give them an idea of visual style, we presented the comp with this mood board:
After the ad was approved, Nicolas spent several weeks exploring visual styles, colour and type, using Peer Review to help pick a winner. Here are a few of the directions he played with:
This is the final ad as it ran:
Art Director: Carson Ting
Writer: Rob Tarry
This is the actual comp we presented to our client at Dayton Boots:
Here are the mood boards we also presented to give a sense of visual style:
After the ad was approved, Carson explored a wide range of options, including the ones shown below, and used Peer Review to help narrow down a winner.
Here’s the final ad:
Of course, there are always exceptions to every rule, and sometimes a tight comp is necessary to sell an idea (this is especially true with design projects, where style is often just as important as substance).
But what do you think? As a former copywriter, do I have it all wrong about art directors? Are you an AD ready to revolt against tight comps? Or do you think the tighter the comp, the tighter the idea? Let me know what you think— that is if you’re not too busy finishing tomorrow’s comps.
Posted on August 24, 2010 by Chris Staples, partner and national co-creative director of Rethink in Vancouver and Toronto.