Hindsight is 20/20, right? Seems more than once in the past few years, I have found myself grumbling that I wish I had just become a writer instead of an art director. “They have it SOOO easy” I’d say to myself, as I dig through color chip books and paper sample books while on hold with a photographer, hoping that my computer will re-boot by the time I’m off the phone since it crashed again because I had all my creative programs open at the same time.
Heck. All copywriters need is a computer and writing skills.
All joking aside, this is serious veteran-to-glossy-eyed-rookie advice. When I started as an intern over 20 years ago I was so enamored with the perceived glamor of the art director. I dreamed of cool shoots in NYC and LA for clients whose products involved beer, or apparel or cute dogs. I’d be using the top illustrators whose work adorns the pages of Communication Arts. I was ready to go deck out in the hippest couture for all the advertising awards I would for sure be walking home with. Life was good. I was in….. ADVERTISING! (Cue SFX: Religious tune of “Alleluia”)
So just to help any young aspiring advertising folks out there that are debating between writing or designing or account service, I thought I would recap what I have learned.
Pros and Cons of being an Art Director/Designer:
1. For the most part – you get all the glory. Nuff said.
1. You have to know about color. Forget just having a good “sense” of color. (That’s like telling someone who wants to be a pro-golfer that all you need to succeed is a love of the game.) You not only have to keep up on what colors are “hot” but what won’t be six months from now; what “that fabulous color” will look like printed on a 4-color press, a 2-color press, newsprint, billboard, t-shirts, paper napkins, on millions of computer monitors and yes, even things like golf balls. And all this is just the tip of the iceberg. To help you keep up with all this are large swatch books that art directors and designers must keep handy. Not too bad. The entire swatch book collection is only the size of a check-only suitcase.
2. You get to work with photographers and illustrators. This actually COULD be in the “pro” column, depending on how the project goes. The industry is demanding more and more from a photographer’s day rate, which can make you “the bad guy” when you remind him/her that they have three more shots to get before they can call it a wrap.
3. You must understand various printing processes. There is offset printing, digital printing, 4-color-process, spot color printing, the hazards of printing on newsprint, photographic printing processes, screen printing….the list goes on.
4. You’ve got to have costly computer equipment and programs. Now, if you work for an agency, hopefully they will supply you with that, but if you ever want to go out on your own, it’s something you should consider. Programs are always updating and as they update, they require stronger, more powerful computers to run them.
5. You have to know how to use current creative software. Of course, the staples are InDesign, Illustrator, and Photoshop, but there are a myriad of others that you need to have at least a basic understanding of, if not more.
6. You need to understand several mediums visually. Magazine, newspaper, website/interactive media/online marketing, outdoor (billboards), direct mail…..
7. You have to stay on top of visual trends. Using sideways type as a design element may have been uber-cool three years ago, but have you flipped through industry pubs lately to see how much it’s being used now?
8. You have to be able to apply concepts to multiple mediums. In other words, does your visual idea work in color AND black and white? In a magazine ad AND a billboard? Hmmm.
9. You have to understand paper. Can you look at five different sheets of 80 pound ultra white paper and see slight color variations and feel the subtleties in thickness? Do you know the difference between uncoated and coated and if the paper you chose will produce the desired effect? (That’s a whole other show, as Oprah would say.)
10. You get to go to press checks. I admit, the first few times, it’s kind of exciting. The smell of the presses, the big machinery, the signs that say “XX days without injuries.” But after the honeymoon wears off and you’re actually expected to know what to look for, the ink smell gives you a headache and you’re so worried about finding a typo at this stage you can’t see straight. This is it, the one final “OK” before it hits the client’s in-box and it’s got YOUR signature on it.
11. If you get burnt out you can go into real estate. I’m sorry, this kinda makes me giggle. But as the years have gone by, I’ve seen art directors and designers jump off the train, so to speak, for various legit reasons. And for some reason, a bunch of them I know have gone on to real estate. There’s always teaching (if you’re cut from that gifted cloth.) But rarely have I seen an art director/designer go onto another job outside of advertising that fully utilizes the skills they actually acquired.
12. Revisions to your layouts can mean hours of reworking digital files. There’s really no explanation here. Anyone that has created a complicated layered Photoshop file knows what I mean.
13. Contrary to popular belief, only about .0000001% of the world’s art directors get to travel to exotic places for photo shoots. I learned that pretty quickly. The fact that I have actually worked with as many photographers as I have makes me feel very fortunate. With the tsunami of stock photography, projects that allow shooting original photography are hard to come by these days.
14. To get steady work, you really need to live near a large metro area. I realized this a few years ago when we considered moving to some drop-dead gorgeous places in Colorado to appease my husband’s fly-fishing addiction. But we had to face the reality that getting to a client meeting over a mountain pass during the peak snow season just ain’t gonna happen. Wah.
15. You have to work within a budget. Buggers. Why does everything have to be about money, right? It may be a great idea to shoot the CEO at the Cliffs of Moher in Ireland. But is it in the budget? (Ok, I’m getting carried away.) It might be nice to have a custom die pocket folder, but is it in the budget? Budgets not only come into play on individual projects but branding as a whole. Can the client’s budget sustain the continuation of your design in order to establish a brand?
Pros and Cons of being a writer:
1. All you need is a laptop with Microsoft Word.
2. You’re not required at press checks
3. You don’t have to know about paper, color, numerous creative computer programs, printing processes etc.
4. Good solid writers are really hard to find so you can get paid well. REALLY good creative writers are even harder to find and can get paid even better. (Yeah, all my writer friends out there are hitting the “comment” button already, I’m sure.)
5. Revisions are logistically easy. Another Word doc with “Revision #x” added to the title.
6. Don’t need to worry about budget while doing your work.
7. You can live anywhere with an internet connection — even dial up. (Ahhhh… the true root of my jealousy — even though I do love where I live right now.)
8. You can have fun concepting all kinds of unique and crazy ideas with art directors because you won’t be the one responsible for creating the layouts.
1. You don’t get all the glory.
Pros and Cons of being an Account Executive
1. When things go bad, they blame the account team. When things go great, they credit the creative team.
2. You have to document every detail of every conversation regarding every project for every client.
3. Your daily to-do list is generally taller than you if printed out from your computer.
4. You have to manage creative people which can require the political skills found in Washington DC and the parenting skills found at Mommy’s Day Out.
5. You have to not only keep track of budgets but strategically squeeze every last bit of value out of the client’s budget. This is not an easy task.
6. Your clients have your office phone, your cell phone, your home phone, your email address, your home address and depending how you negotiated the account, rights to your first born child.
So, you’re probably thinking I really hate what I do. On the contrary. I guess having a “love of the game” IS all that matters in the long run. When all is said and done and I lay out a cornucopia of projects I’ve done for a client, it makes me feel good to see what a positive impact I’ve had on their business.
If you are seriously considering the industry, go find out about all the facets of advertising. Get an internship – definitely. It not only gives you experience, but gives you time to act like you don’t know anything while you’re not expected to.
Oh, what? Did I inadvertently leave off “pros” of being an Account Executive? Shame on me. Maybe that’s the creative in me coming out. Let me just say this. I’ve got a couple of good ones working with me. But I still wouldn’t want their jobs. I’m definitely not cut from THAT cloth.
As for being a writer. OK, I’ll admit. They do more and play a much more integral role than I let on. But I’m hoping my writer cronies will just “give me this one.”
By Trish McCabe Rawls