I’ve worked professionally as a graphic designer for over a decade. I confess that after all that time I’m still a little perplexed by the trajectory my career has taken. I signed up for a sexy profession of album covers, book covers, movie posters and film titles. Websites, what they used to call multimedia and logos (now branding) were always part of the mix but that was supposed to be the more serious corporate (boring) stuff. At Cooper Union I don’t remember ever even hearing or seeing the words advertising or marketing. I do know some colleages who had the common sense to take creative advertising classes at neighboring Parsons and it appears to have paid good dividends in their careers. I, on the other hand, never thought about the broader commercial applications of my design training until I was a few years into the profession. I joined a startup web design company immediately after school. The web bubble burst at the end of 2000 and 9/11 effectively put our struggling boutique out of business. At the end of 2002 I could no longer afford to play along with entrepreneurs and I took the first job I was offered as lead designer for the marketing department of a public company.
It sounds mildly glamourous and respectible but it wasn’t at all (at least not to me). It was my first brush with how design actually fits into the real world with the designer being a low level player in a cast of copywriters, marketing directors, researchers, vps and other middle management. I lasted for nearly two years before I regained some risk taking confidence and dived into the world of freelance (where I’ve remained for the last six years). As I soon drifted toward larger ad agencies (at least more glamourous sounding) the rudest awakening for me was that often my design skills were often viewed as production. When this happened it was very demoralizing to me as I considered myself creative. I quickly learned that if wanted to reclaim the respect I desired and of course get paid better I’d need to redefine myself as an ‘art director’ (a term that still has a whiff of ambiguity about it to me). As an art director the job has been to sketch out visual ideas and concepts (often in tandem with a copywriter) and leave the finishing work to the production specialist.
As a person with a history in working with the web it was only natural that my creative talents were channelled into art directing web banner ads (back to unglamorous). Although I’d skimmed the surface of the advertising ecosystem it was in digital ads where I saw all intangibles disappear and the objectives and successes of an ad become crystal clear.
Digital ads are sold by impressions and tracked by clicks (clicks being of the most value and cost to the advertiser). In the advertising world of Mad Men the idea is committed to by the client and released into a world of print, radio and television. The idea was often tested by small focus groups. The success or failure of a campaign could be measured over time, usually the life of a campaign (6-12 months).
In digital ads the premium has moved to the most elemental metric of clicks. A campaign could be deemed a failure in one day if it doesn’t meet it’s click quota. Ironically a successful campaign amounts to fractions of a percent of clicks out of all impressions. (With this much waste in advertising it is truly a blessing that we are moving away from printed ads!)
As a creative person, the futility of the ad business creeps into the soul pretty fast. A majority of digital campaign concepts come from higher up from print and media teams. When it’s time to execute the digital ad it often feels more like task based production studio work (not a great feeling for the art director). But in the event that the concept is generated by the digital team, regardless of idea brilliance, that idea and execution is thoroughly vetted by marketing managers to make sure that it is optimized for clicks.
What’s that amount to? In most cases the ads feel as cheap as they are. I’ve rarely been moved by a banner ad although I have felt the seductive pull of a print or broadcast campaign. The momentum now swings in favor of preroll video ads which are exactly like tv commercials (try watching YouTube videos without them…an annoyance I’ll save for another post). This doesn’t help me professionally all that much as I’m not a film director (although I have still managed to create some preroll ad videos). I suppose the holy grail of creative digital ad work is the microsite. The final destination of all clicks. They come in varying degrees of quality. Most feel as cheap as the ads that have led to them. Occasionally some break ground for exceptional design and technology. But all are more transient than ‘real’ websites with very short shelf lives.
Ads have produced an unweildy amount of clutter on the web. Google is the worst offender with their garrish automated ads promising dividends to the content owner. As a designer it is truly a conflict to see ads I’ve art directed contributing to the unsightliness of a website. I’ve since moved back to the content side of designing websites and can lament having to deal with the variables of ads and their disruption of what was a beautifully executed design.
I certainly don’t mean to devalue the necessities of sales and marketing. Companies need to create awareness for their products and messages and advertising is often the best way to meet that goal.
But consider this. While advertising can be credited to making the old media world go round it does not make the new media world go round. There are many content sites who use advertising as income to support an Internet business. There are many sites on the web that don’t rely on ads, and many of them are quite profitable. I toyed with using Google ads on a website but killed the idea after I deduced that the returns were going to be very poor and it wasn’t worth sacrificing the cleanliness of the website for a few extra bucks.
I thought by writing about my experience with advertising in this post I’d intellectually stumble on a solution to what I see as a still primitive, unsophisticated and largely ineffective apparatus. I have not. But there’s a whole lot of people out there who hate ads on the web and they take steps to shut them out. This prompts content creators to complain that their readers are causing them to lose money on already free content. I’m not ready to side with either camp. I keep the ads turned in (I tell myself it’s for professional reasons) but I must confess I love the idea that I could shut them off if I one day decide I’ve had enough. But what I think this conflict illustrates is that there is indeed a problem with the current advertising paradigm on the web. If I ever think of a solution ahead of webolution I will revisit this topic.
So in a roundabout way here’s the question. Can we transcend sales and marketing without killing advertising?