Why art directors spend their lives comping.

Probably every art director working in advertising right now has asked himself/herself, “Why didn’t I choose to be a writer instead?”

As an art director, I’ve probably spent most of my career comping. And most of that time has been spent looking for images. It’s a sad reality and one of the reasons that I’ve become disillusioned with advertising over the years. 

Presentations have increasingly relied upon amazing layouts to dazzle clients. In my early years in the business (in the mid-nineties), it was still acceptable to present sketched comps to clients. This was great because everyone’s attention would be focused on the idea itself. It was impossible to trick any client into buying a weak idea that was obscured by beautiful eye candy.

Nowadays, if you walk into a meeting with simple sketched ideas, the reception is likely to be flat. Everyone expects finished-looking comps.

It’s only natural to try to find someone to blame for this trend. But if you ask me, we art directors can only blame ourselves. 

As highly visual people, we understood the power of beautiful visuals and we used them to gain an advantage. We discovered that our visual powers of persuasion even worked on seasoned creative directors who should have been able to see past pretty pictures, but were swayed anyway. We competitively out-comped the other art directors when multiple teams were assigned to the same project. We stayed up later and later to craft our layouts. And it worked. Our work stood out.

But look where we are now. Everyone expects luscious, high-res comps and incredible graphic design. If we have three days to develop ideas for a creative brief, we spend one day concepting and two days comping. We spend less time brainstorming ideas and more time scouring the web for great images. This has led to weaker (but prettier) ads.

I don’t think we can put the genie back into the bottle. What’s done is done. We can only look forward. The future lies in ad agencies building studios full of young graphic designers that specialize in making stuff pretty, so art directors can spend their time directing not designing. This is how it’s typically done at agencies in London. And at certain agencies like Wieden+Kennedy (or so I hear).

I do think it’s a valuable skill to be able to craft beautiful stuff. It’s empowering. But it doesn’t make bad ideas better. Sometimes it’s only a façade that hides shallow work.

I would love to see creative directors try something refreshing. Instead of expecting highly produced comps when reviewing ideas internally, CD’s should demand to see only sketched comps. It’s a true test of the power of an idea. The make-up and lipstick can come later.

I’d also love to see agencies remake their studios by filling them with young, talented graphic designers who are dedicated to comping. Perhaps treat it as a bootcamp for newbies, who eventually transition out of it and become fully-fledged art directors (knowing that it’s not very rewarding to spend your time “wristing” other people’s ideas, so nobody wants to do it for very long.)

Things won’t really change until CD’s start demanding changes. Demanding that their art directors spend more time concepting with their writer partners. Demanding more emphasis on raw ideas. Demanding that they stop using beautiful layouts as a crutch.

If you’re a young art director in school and you also happen to be a decent writer, you might consider switching to being a copywriter. You’ll have more of a life. You’ll go home from work earlier. You’ll get more time with your wife and family. You’ll get more sleep.

On the other hand, as an art director, you’re kind of a one man/woman band. Often I’ve worked alone because my writer partner was on vacation or unavailable. And I managed pretty well, since I was able to use my design skills to bring ideas to life singlehandedly. 

Whichever way you look at it, I believe art directors are the hardest working people in advertising. That is, if you measure it by perspiration instead of inspiration. Too bad the majority of ideas never see the light of day. That’s a lot of man hours spent making beautiful clay pigeons.