The Idea is Everything; Does it Really Matter Where it Comes From?
From day one I wanted to be an Art Director.
In 1976, having just completed my Advertising and Design degree at Manchester Polytechnic, I made the leap into London armed with an A to Z Street-finder and a long list of agency phone numbers.
It was easy to get in front of creative directors back in those days, you just called up and made an appointment. They were always keen to see students.
I had a book full of fresh ideas – rough Magic Marker stuff – and the majority of agencies I went to see said I would make a good copywriter. I could write good headlines.
A bit confused about which way to go, I was given a trial in a London agency – Benton & Bowles – where I worked for nothing for 3 months to gain some experience and work out what I wanted to do.
My learning curve went straight up through the whole five floors of the building.
I was a 23-year old sponge; I soaked up everything working in that place.
My first ad was for Associated Biscuits – headline, copy and layout – then I came up with an idea for a beer poster for Youngers Tartan Bitter. I enjoyed writing, but because the agency was short of Art Directors they asked me to go and shoot both ads, I was so excited. I knew nothing about photography so the more experienced guys set me up with two top advertising photographers: Derek Seagrim and Bob Cramp. Those guys knew how to take a picture. There was no Photoshop back then – the shot had to be perfect, retouching was expensive.
When I got back to the agency with the shots everybody commented on how good they looked. Next day, the Creative Director came in to see me and offered me a full time job as a junior Art Director.
“I know you want to be a copywriter” he said, “but these shots are great and we need another AD here right now, so do you want to take the job?” Damn, I thought, I really want to write ads, but I’d be mad to turn this down. I took the job.
So, I’d swapped roles within my first 6 months in advertising and became an Art Director.
After a month of working with different teams, the agency finally brought in a writer who had previously been a teacher in a secondary school. She didn’t think advertising straight away, which meant she couldn’t think different. Don’t get me wrong, she was a nice person, but she hadn’t done four years at an advertising college like me. She thought she was employed to just write persuasive words on a piece of paper.
It was hard work. Every time I suggested an idea or a headline she would resist it, saying it was her job to come up with the headline and the words. Strewth, it drove me up the wall.
Then it all changed. One day we were working on a cold remedy and she had a great idea for a TV spot using Russian dolls. It showed how cold and flu symptoms built up as one doll was placed inside another. To show the relief from symptoms, after taking the product, the sequence was reversed – simple. I loved it!
Trying hard to conceal my enthusiasm for the idea I said to her: “But it’s my job to come up with the visual ideas, so we’re not going to do that”. She looked at me distraught, tears welled, she was livid. Then I smiled, just before she was about to throw her typewriter at me. (Yes, volatile creatives did do that in the 70’s). She knew what I was up to and laughed, calling me one or two unprintable names. I’d made my point. We were fine after that, and a better team, because she finally accepted that this was a good way to work.
Since then, I’ve worked as an art director in one agency and as a copywriter in another – I’ve had a foot in both camps over the years.
Once I had a call from a client, who said he wanted me to meet up with him to talk about a campaign.
I drove all the way up to Luton and he sat me down and talked about this idea he had. It was based on a sound strategy and good advertising thinking. He was a good client.
I said to him: “Chris, you get me all the way up here to tell me this? You don’t need me, you’ve cracked it. This is a great idea” He looked at me and said: “Yes I know, but I just wanted to hear you say it, and I need you to make it better.” He wanted reassurance and someone who wasn’t going to be precious or upset about the fact it was his idea. He also knew that I’d be honest enough to tell him if I thought it was crap too.
The point of my story is this: It doesn’t matter where an idea comes from, because an advertising idea is the most important thing. We see too many ads these days that are just wallpaper; all veneer and no idea. They become part of the background, easily forgotten.
Grab someone’s attention with a good idea and it will stand the test of time. Ads like that are the ones you remember, the ones that stick in your head. The ones that make you say: “Damn, I wish I’d done that”, whether you‘re a copywriter, an art director or a client.
I’ve heard it said many times that art directors come up with better headlines than copywriters and more often than not the copywriter would come up with a great visual idea. Who cares? It happens when you’re a team.
We should also listen to what our clients have to say too. I like to involve them and treat them as part of the team. After all, they’re much closer to their product than an agency and often have a good idea that’s worth talking about. Having said that, we need to have the wisdom to know a good idea when we see one and the courage to speak up if it’s not; being precious and protective about an idea will only stifle creativity in my book.
Bernie Thornton, is a freelance copywriter with over three decades of experience and a genuine passion for ‘ideas’. He has worked for some of the UK’s top ad agencies, on many of their leading brands, producing everything from small space ads to big international campaigns. His expertise extends across all the communication disciplines, including traditional and online media.
With his long-standing advertising experience, he also has a
solid understanding of what motivates consumers. He applies this knowledge to good effect and never loses sight of the fact that creativity has to work – and sell too.
We invited Bernie to join the Bastian Contrarian copywriting and advertising team in September this year and can’t wait to work with him in future.