Andy Cooke

Design & direction across brand identity, screen and print

Advertising is Where Design Goes to Die

Originally published on Little Black Book, 01.02.23

  1. 943 words
  2. 7 minute read

There are people who would have you believe that design, as a practice, has long been dead inside the walls of advertising agencies. Who hasn’t heard tales of designers being briefed on Friday afternoons for Monday morning deadlines, where hovering art directors use designers as their hand then take all the credit later on, and of design teams being treated as mere cogs in a machine where the 'creative' part is done elsewhere.

And you know what. They’ve been right about a lot of it, for a long time.

The value of design and designers has been viewed through a concave lens in many quarters of the ad industry for a while now. With a focus so heavily skewed on ideas (rightfully so), designers have been placed in the running of things at the end of the conveyor belt, only called upon to bring other people’s ideas to visual fruition. With a knee-jerk reaction from ad agencies of writing TV scripts in responses to briefs, designers probably needn’t be involved until an end frame layout is needed, anyway. And with growing strategy departments just focusing on collaborating with creative departments, it feels like the design department is just there to add the final flourish to all that thinking. Right?

Respectfully: Fuck, no.

But it’s easy to see why designers see design as a dead end in the ad industry. No designer wants to just be a cog, a glorified Mac operator where they’re left with no time to do anything that’s really portfolio worthy, or being put down by creative duos on an ego trip. Of course, there are companies within advertising that do design pretty damn well (and I bet a few instantly come to mind). It usually puts their work, in whatever form it may take, up there with the best in the world. It makes those companies places that people want to go to, work alongside and be associated with. And it shows the world that they care about communicating great ideas in the best way possible — through conceptually-led, strategically-driven, beautifully crafted design work.

Fear not, however; the future needn't be as bleak as previously mentioned. Optimism is on the horizon, and approaching at speed. Design is no longer just the icing on the cake, and here’s a taster of what it brings to the whole (creative) table.

1. Ideas!

Every creative agency’s currency, ideas have been traditionally devised by art and copy duos in a system that has worked pretty well for decades. Lovely stuff, right? It's just, designers have ideas too (as creative people), and we can help teams with those kernels of ideas before they’re fully fledged popped pieces of corn. Sometimes evolving them for the better.

2. What if...?

Sometimes, just sometimes, the answer isn’t a script. Sometimes, it's not even a TV ad. Instead, that solution to the client problem might well be another kind of answer altogether. Maybe it’s a brand identity, a digital experience, an event, or even a book. It could be all of those things, including a TV script. Having a designer in the room well before it’s time to visualise might change the whole trajectory of a project, solving briefs in unexpected and serendipitous ways.

3. Early doors.

Why do strategists, art directors and copywriters get to have all the conceptual fun!? We all know by now that great design is strategically-informed and conceptually-led, and by inviting design to those early meetings, design work can tie into ideas as strongly and as early as possible.

4. Revisit processes.

Hear me out... How about the design department as a key beat along the whole journey? We get briefed in by accounts alongside strategy, collaborate with strategy and creative upfront, contribute and visualise concepts with creative and production, and deliver the work right there with production and accounts.

5. Trust us :)

What if designers were always part of client interviews, presentations, pitches, shares and reviews? Brian Collins said “if you are a designer at an ad agency, but you are not invited to present your work or your thinking to the agency’s clients, then neither you or design is respected at your agency.” It’s not just about pretty typefaces and lovely colour combinations — it can add real value to business thinking, product strategy and how clients can effectively communicate, as well as how they show up in the world.

Pfft, these designers. They don’t want much, do they!? It might all be too much trouble. It might be better to just keep them where they belong, in the studio, doing what they’ve always done. Yeah, a lot less of a headache...

This archaic mindset will be the case for many ad agencies out there, probably for some time to come. They’re the same ones who’ll probably continue to do work in the same way it’s always been, and they probably won’t seize the opportunity of how understanding the value of design can benefit an agency — and they’ll probably be the ones getting left behind because of it.

But by investing in design from a cultural, creative and a thinking point of view; by exploring new ways of working and new processes — not only can all of this help make clients more relevant, more prominent and of course, more profitable — but it's also critical for creating compelling work that provokes a genuine response when it's out in the world.

It’s part of our new creative mandate to move design as a practice closer to the beating heart of our organisation. The design revolution is here. And it's an exciting time to be a designer at BBH.