The mysteries of art direction and copywriting

Ever since I’ve worked in advertising I’ve thought that art directors have one massive advantage over copywriters: they can make their job seem to be a series of arcane, impenetrable mysteries in a way that copywriters cannot.

‘I think the greens look a little cold over there.’

‘The balance of the composition just isn’t strong enough.’

‘I think we need to revisit the contrast on that shot.’

Of course, those are entirely reasonable things for an AD to say, and they might well need the suggested attention, but whether they are right or wrong, they will undoubtedly make all the non-ADs in the room shut the fuck up for fear of seeming stupid or tasteless.

Whereas the poor copywriters have to contend with every man and his dog mentally waving that GCSE English Grade B in the face of any line that vaguely troubles them. It’s far easier for them to say, ‘Does that have to be a semi colon?’ than ‘Shouldn’t we up the cyan on that image?’. Unless they’re a professional AD they’re going to be pretty concerned about hearing the response, ‘The cyan? There is no cyan. That’s entirely magenta. Did you mean magenta?’ But place some English in front of anyone and they’ll be able to reach back to those ten great emails they wrote, their teenage diary or a tasty keynote presentation from 2008, and offer a verbal adjustment.

That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re wrong (or right); English often comes down to taste and opinion (particularly advertising English, which regularly sacrifices correctness for accessibility) and that vagueness can lead to a wider range of arguments. Many’s the time I’ve had a chat about whether or not we should end a sentence with a full stop, trade a highfalutin’ colon for a run-of-the-mill comma, or use bullet points instead of proper sentences. There is a correct answer, but it can make people uncomfortable enough to change it. They have enough confidence to say what is right or wrong but not enough to believe in the answer which is not their own.

If this sounds copywriter-whingey, it’s not intended to be. I’m just trying to point out that whatever you arm someone with, they will be inclined to use. In art direction most people couldn’t punch their way out of a wet paper bag, but in writing many people at least have a baseball bat.

Coincidentally, it often feels as if that is the very tool they are using.