VIEWPOINTS - WHEN DESIGN

MEETS ADVERTISING. WHAT

HAPPENS NEXT?

 

 
By Brian Collins

This may explain why advertising and design disciplines are almost always practiced separately. At worst, ad people look at designers as conceptually challenged, if occasionally useful, exotic menials, helpful for concocting the end frames of commercials or giving typography that elusive shimmer of hipness. Many designers, on the other hand, view ad people as aesthetically bankrupt hucksters. A glance through any issue of (the albeit well-designed) Adbusters magazine quickly confirms this view. One designer I know enjoys tracing the decline of American culture back to Meow Mix commercials.

This design/advertising divide is, in part, why so many brands can go 'meow-meow' quite successfully in their ads, but then go 'woof' on their web sites, 'quack' in their stores, and 'oink' in their products and packaging. So, is there any way to bring these two disciplines together? At Ogilvy, and before that working on Levi's at FCB/San Francisco, my teams and I have tried to do just that. Sometimes we've succeeded. Sometimes not. Here is some of what we've learned along the way:

Despite our differences there is one thing that advertising and design have in common: we both tell stories. (Sure, storytelling is a cliché. But bear with me for a moment.) Great storytelling is always interesting because it's driven by one idea: What Happens Next? That's what people want to know. It's why they turn the page. Why they tune in next time. Why they enter a store. Or buy the magazine. To see what happens next. And whether your roots are in design or advertising, we're all in the what-happens-next business. Because clients won't pay if nothing happens next.

Stories are fundamental to being human. They are how we understand the world and create meaning for ourselves at the deepest levels. According to recent research, about 95 percent of cognition happens below the level of consciousness. That's because the human brain spends 95 percent of its time communicating with itself, creating and re-creating the stories of our experience of the world. When a new message comes in from outside, our brain adds information that wasn't in the original message, subtracts information that was, and puts the rest together with what it remembers to create nearly all of the meaning we ascribe to the message. The more a new message evokes our stored experience, the more meaning it has for us, good or bad.

Interestingly, every new encounter has the potential to change what we remember about a previous encounter: A powerful, new message or experience can literally rewrite the stories we run on the hard drives inside our heads.

The way I see it, it's the job of advertising and design to help shape these stories into something meaningful. And this shaping allows people to better understand and navigate through their lives and the world. Done right, both disciplines transform information into understanding.

Advertising, especially television advertising, is storytelling raised to the flash point. In 30 seconds (or less) an ad can make me believe something, feel something, move my heart, or inspire me to try something. Shift my mind in some way. TV advertising is inherently narrative; it's crafted on storyboards, after all.

Advertising exists between. Between the shows we want to watch, between the articles we want to read, in the gaps between buildings, in the air between songs on the radio. Because advertising historically exists only by the audience's indulgence it has had to become extraordinarily charming, extraordinarily concise, extraordinarily focused. This historically successful approach has focused advertising's vision but often prevents it from broadening its outlook.

Design is a more oblique, less narrative form of storytelling. The bright red and yellow logo, the fluorescent lighting, and narrow benches at every McDonald's remind us not to linger too long. But the hand-painted window signs, cracked leather chairs, stacks of old New Yorkers, and the scent of burnt coffee at my favorite cafe off Hudson Street inspire me to hang around there as long as I damn well please.

Design is actually a more direct, immediate kind of storytelling because it touches people's actual experience. It isn't the promise of experience. It is experience. It's how people live What Happens Next. Design is the advertising promise made visible, real, and ultimately, personal. And only then can it become a meaningful part of someone's own story.

The relationship between advertising and design should be symbiotic. When that happens, the cumulative effect can be huge. Great brands are the sum of all kinds of stories. But if you can crystallize those stories with strong design you can harness something extraordinarily powerful. I like the example of pirates and their infamous Jolly Roger flag. When the flag was raised that symbol sent an unmistakable brand promise ('You're fucked') to an audience consisting of all those merchant ships sailing through the Caribbean. Just the sight of that flag summoned up a very specific set of brand expectations, which were always delivered. Meanwhile, to the ship's employees, the symbol had another function. It drove behavior. It told them that it's time to stop acting like sailors and start acting like bloody pirates. Each and every time the pirates acted that way, they delivered on the Jolly Roger promise, and added to the legend. They brought their brand to life by performing the pirate experience. Consistently. Fatally. In fact, they performed so consistently that by the 18th century all a pirate ship often had to do was hoist its skull and crossbones and the crew of the intended victim ship would drop their cargo without a fight and flee. The outcome the pirates hoped for materialized simply by waving their infamous logo.

Brilliant advertising can evoke powerful associations and awaken hopeful, new expectations. Commercials can roll up our own life experiences into a set of expectations about a brand. But expectations are the endgame of advertising. The most powerful ad of all time doesn't even rise to the level of foreplay in terms of our actual experience of the world. 'Try it, you'll like it!' is the best an ad can do. When Smallville comes back on or when we turn the page, all we have left is a promise. After that, it's up to the brand to walk the talk.

Design, in this light, provides the architecture for fulfilling expectations. It's about what happens next, and what happens next, and what happens next after that. And so on. But a marketer can never completely control what will actually be 'next' for anyone.

See the spot, read the ad, check the site, go to the event, visit the store, handle the packaging. Or buy the product, get the support, join the loyalty program, experience the difference. Linear marketing plans all bang the same drum. But in real life, people intersect the brands of our clients willy-nilly. They're just as likely to see a package before they see an ad. In the real-life stories of individuals, the first encounter and what happens next is completely up to them. Any plan we hoped for is out the window from the get-go.

If a brand aims to be a meaningful part of someone's own story, then we need to manage advertising and design so that no matter where someone puts a hand in the stream, they touch something that looks, sounds, and feels like their brand.

The way I see brands is pretty simple: A brand is a promise made consistently over time. Where that promise is supported by performance, a brand thrives. 'Try it, you'll like it!' becomes 'I tried it, I liked it!' But performance demands action. And design is a plan for action, the definition Charles Eames liked. It's never been just about 'What should something look like?' Design can ask and answer a much bigger question: 'What do we want to make happen?'

The moments of truth for brands occur outside the advertising. And those moments are more important than the advertising because they are tests that a brand can actually fail. The trick is to keep all those touchpoints from flying off by centrifugal force. So we need big ideas to hold different expressions of the brand together. More than that, we need people who are masters of disciplines that are still being invented.

It's no longer as easy as ?take the end-frame graphics of your commercial and slap it everywhere you can.' Yet I know some agencies still believe that is the way to become part of someone's world and daily experience. Mindless, numbing consistency. The same note, endlessly repeated. Everywhere.

You can't drink a TV spot. If you put graphics from a soft-drink commercial on a soda vending machine, you're missing the point of what that particular context and implied product experience are all about. When we worked on the new design program for Sprite, we immersed ourselves in the real experiences of people who drink Sprite, and it led us to a whole new design vocabulary that expresses everything from instantly refreshing taste attributes to more provocative abstractions that users can choose to engage with or ignore, it's up to them. They can choose how deep they want to go. But the point is the brand's signal can be modified and tuned appropriately, from skateboard parks to delivery trucks to 7-11 to packaging. It mutates.

You can't walk into a commercial and spend the afternoon there. When we worked with our clients at Hershey's on their store in Times Square, we wanted to make the mythic Hershey story a real, physical one. A story that paralleled the layered visual history of Times Square. So we imagined how Milton Hershey might have built his chocolate factory, candy bar by candy bar and year after year, if he'd opened it in Times Square in 1915. If you stand on line at TKTS today and look up Broadway, that's the story you'll see. To deliver it, we selected design language and lighting technologies available from every decade starting in 1920 but stopping in 1970. So no mammoth LED screens. No towering video displays. Just blinking lights, twinkling strobes, spinning neon, pistons, and steam. And more signs will be added over time.

None of this can be done without collaboration, and not just between advertising and design. The Hershey store brought Clear Channel/Spectacolor, retail specialists, architects, lighting technicians, composers, musicians, city officials, painters, special effects, interactive designers, singers, electricians sign makers, plumbers, crane operators, product designers, construction workers, engineers, police, labor unions, actors, signers, public relation and promotion people, employee trainers, and people dressed as Hershey Kisses into the mix.

We need to recognize?again?that advertising and design are more art than science. So we all need to behave more like artists than scientists. In this partnership nobody is a second-class citizen; designers must bring their gifts for holistic, systemic thinking and big (but usually non-TV) ideas. And ad people must bring their potent storytelling crafts, and their ability to inspire emotion. We also have to recognize that the largest insights must be delivered down to their smallest, artistic detail. Because day-to-day execution across the fruited plane, on the shelf, in the store, on the sides of trucks, on the web, is ultimately more important than a commercial that runs during the Super Bowl. Sorry, it is.

It's a given that most of us, or at least you if you?ve read this far, seek to be innovators in our disciplines. Maybe even recognized ones. That's what our peers respect and award juries reward us for. That neat, new thing we did: that hysterical commercial, that knockout billboard, that great package design.

The problem is we know too well what our peers, our bosses, and the award show judges expect. Every discipline defines its own currency of The New. But no communication succeeds alone. If we aim to create unexpected and unexpectedly relevant experiences for our clients, audiences, we have to raise collaboration to the level of art. And that's not easy when it is still so rewarding to be champions of the familiar.

Right away, it means fighting the political gravity of your own shop. And then being ready to engage, fully, with very different people from very different disciplines. To engage with the kind of people who you?d never hire at first glance, and to give them an equal place at the table.

At a recent fancy-pants event here in the city I met Nicholas Negroponte, one of the West's great long thinkers. He believes that a climate in which such very different minds band together is a requirement for any organization that hopes to sustain innovation. 'One of the basics of a good system of innovation,' he says, 'is diversity.' The stronger the local culture, be it institutional, generational, or cultural, 'the less likely it is to harbor innovative thinking.' Deep-seated beliefs, unwritten norms of behavior and performance, reward systems, team spirit, all conspire to turn 'What Happens Next' into exactly 'What We've Seen Before.'

If you believe, as I do, that creativity is about transcendent ideas, expressed with immediacy and tangibility, then you have to start by transcending your own discipline. Hold your craft tight with one hand and leave your other hand wide open. It's hard. But it's a requirement if we want to be leaders in shaping a new Golden Age (instead of remaining as convenient menials on a client's vendor list).

That choice is up to you. But there's another responsibility that transcends both our disciplines. One we can't escape. My friend Ric Gref, Executive Director of the AIGA, the nation's graphic design organization, first called my attention to that responsibility when he said: 'People give us moments of their lives that they will never get back.' Shopping in a store we designed, watching a commercial, surfing a web site, reading a billboard, checking out a neat package, product, book, or a magazine that we created. What we do becomes part of their own personal story.

So, whether we are disciples of David Ogilvy or Paul Rand, we owe people nothing less than our best.



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