Mike Fromowitz
Nov 20, 2011

Is technology making the art director and the copywriter redundant?

Way back in 30s and 40s, copy was king. It wasn't particularly smart copy. It used a lot of puns and most often it just stated the name and benefit of the product or service. Usually, the ads ...

Is technology making the art director and the copywriter redundant?

Way back in 30s and 40s, copy was king. It wasn't particularly smart copy. It used a lot of puns and most often it just stated the name and benefit of the product or service. Usually, the ads featured long copy explaining the features and benefits.

Things stayed this way until Bill Bernbach came along. Before Bernbach, copywriters and art directors didn't work together on projects. The copywriter created the ad, wrote the copy, slid it underneath the art directors door and the art director put the concept to paper.

Bernbach had the idea that two heads would be better than one. He created teams of copywriters and art directors, and in so doing, changed the advertising agency business forever. His innovation became the impetus for a creative revolution.

The art director had to have trade skills that included knowledge in typography, the printing process, photography, illustration, marking up type, mechanical art production, and more. These were skills that not just anybody could do.

Now it seems—at least to some people—that the skills of the art director are no longer needed because of the advances in technology and software applications that almost anybody can learn.

Information on the Internet has become so ubiquitous that the copywriter’s job isn’t fairing much better than that of the art director.  Advertising copy, especially long copy, has mostly disappeared from the ads we see today. We are told that, “given the shorter attention span of consumers, the advertising of the day demands that communication be short and simple”. Oh, and don’t forget adding the website URL to the ad, just in case the consumer needs more information.

By the year 2000, the term "copywriter" seemed almost obsolete. Body copy? Forget it! Copy had taken a complete backseat to visual gags and headlines made up of 2 to 5 words. The role of the copywriter had changed. The job had become far more visually demanding. It was no longer about a clever turn of phrase. It actually required the copywriter and art director to work even closer together to find some “intrusive” idea. Award shows gave out gongs to the ads with the fewest words. The once specialized and proprietary skills of art direction and copywriting had become commoditized. Anybody with a computer could create their own ads and be a copywriter—or so it seemed.

My good friend Blair Currie, in one of his notable blogs for Campaign Asia, said that “The (ad) industry seems to be alive with new types of jobs that have been created at ‘progressive’ agencies. One of them was for “Creative Technologists”,  a new type of creative person that blends creative with technology.”

“Technology people,” he added, “are more adept at experimenting with different options. This includes moving from The Big Idea to many ideas and by launching work and then improving upon it, the way software developers work...giving rise to faster turn-around and higher margins because more work is done internally”.

So the question: Is technology making the art director and the copywriter redundant?

The creative idea has always been the most important thing. And there’s certainly money to be saved if you hire one creative person who is equally adept at both copy and art...but is he any good?

Some agency executives believe it makes more sense that an advertising idea person is teamed with a technology person. Others are moving to a “Cell” structure by teaming a strategic planner with a creative idea person and a technology person. The cell then collaborates with the clients.

Many large agencies are heavily invested in the old way of doing things and find it difficult to experiment or to change and they continue with their traditional silos. As soon as they find yet another way to make some money, up goes a new silo. More and more, clients are finding this system antiquated and anything but efficient or creative.

Lately, I’ve been following an interesting D&AD discussion group. A contributor to the group recently proposed a new blanket title for the art director: 'Content Strategy Director'.

“The term 'Art Director' sounded great in the 60's” he said,"but now that term is so readily applied to a Senior Web designer. It's time to kill the old dog and generate a title that better reflects the modern usage of the role in advertising across all media”.

One contributor to the discussion offered the following: “It needs an "expert" in there somewhere because we need to compete with all the other "experts" like social media experts, digital experts, etc.”.

‘Concept Director' (for both Writers And AD's) got a quick thumbs up in the department of another contributor to the group.

Another chap from the USA noted: “For the clients’ benefit the term 'content strategist' speaks to something tangible—content! I’m finding business leaders even scoffing at the terms 'creative' and 'conceptual'. Of course this is the States, anti-intellectualism seems to be very fashionable these days”.

And lastly, I found the following contributor’s statement the most interesting of all: “It would be a sad day if the word "Art" was stripped from our profession. Art is at the root of what we do, and it's one of the most valuable assets of our culture”.

Personally, I believe that our industry still requires highly specialized craft people. The best creative work that I’ve seen over these past few years still comes from teams of copywriters and art directors. I don’t mind teaming them up with a technology/digital specialist. For me, its not a matter of whether its digital or traditional or both—it’s about the creative idea and what creative ideas, when activated, can do for sales.

Advertising agencies and their clients are surrounding all things digital like it was the only meal in town. I wish for once they’d shut up and get on with focusing on sales. At the end of the day, we don’t produce advertising or do social media marketing so we can say “Look at the amazing ads we made”. We do it to reach people (or have them reach us) so that we can sell them something—a product, a service, a thought.

From here, it’s beginning to look like anyone with an iPad, Twitter, Linkedin or a Facebook account,  and fluency in other digital mumbo jumbo, can get a job in advertising. The arrival of professionals with fancy titles like social media mogul, creative technologists, developers, etc. makes it darn near impossible to know who really does what.

If the case for retaining the art director and the copywriter (and keeping their titles as is) there is no better argument, I think, than the recent article penned by Antony Young,  the CEO of Mindshare North America, a WPP media strategy and investment agency. In his article for AdAge Digital he said: “We in the media industry are infatuated with the New... but digital marketers are investing in the old. How ironic, then, that when it comes to pitching for advertising dollars, being somewhat old-school appears to be the formula to win over marketers budgets. The hottest digital ad mediums are adaptations from old media”.

“What's the fastest growing medium in digital at the moment? Online video … or basically TV commercials”, adds Young. “Example after example, we see that today's digital new media clamoring to sell us very traditional advertising solutions. But it doesn't stop with traditional digital media. Social media powerhouse Facebook sees its financial future in selling display advertising space—a decidedly traditional online advertising model.”

Given Antony Young’s assessment of digital media, doesn’t that sound like there remains a need for art directors and copywriters? I would think so.

Just yesterday, a creative friend and ex-colleague of mine who now works in one of Singapore’s newest ad agencies, wrote an email to me on the subject of advertising “titles”. He said, “I´ve worked in an agency that threw a lot of people from all the fields, with all the new fancy titles into a room to do some brainstorming. By the end of the day, we had nothing. Then, me and my art director had to spend the next two nights creating a campaign the client would buy.  Involving developers, planners, or the media team did not help ideas come to life—it only made things more confusing simply because they don’t have the background skills to do what we know how to do—it’s what we’ve been doing for more than ten years together”.

Certainly, the art of creativity is not mutually exclusive to the pairing of the Art Director and Copywriter—for certain. Great ideas can come from anyone and anywhere and it’s about time that agencies realize this fact. Creative brainstorming should be based on collaboration rather than on teams. Involving other roles such as a planner, a technologist, or even a business entrepreneur, can help bring different perspectives and ideas than those that may be brought to the table by the classic agency pair.

At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if you are an expert in social media, in digital technology, in website design and architecture, or an expert in SEM. The question is, can you make ads?

I do see a ray of sunshine on the horizon.

It appears to me that copy (even long copy) may be in vogue again. Copywriters no doubt have to shift their thinking somewhat.  I think this is good for art directors too. In this age of Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Linkedin, StumbleUpon and various other new advertising media, writers and art directors are creating new ways of getting the message out. Words are back. Images remain strong. Are we seeing the days of the visual-only ad beginning to fade away? I certainly hope so.

Art directors and copywriters have to once again look to visuals with strong, relevant copy as their motivation. But now, it's not just about the words and the visuals,  it’s also about where and when to use them.

Mike Fromowitz



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