Tuesday, March 16, 2010

For What It's Worth No. 15

Respect. It's something I think is missing from both art directors for illustrators and in too many cases illustrators for art directors and for the life of me I can't understand why. The very title of art director should mean, and has meant in the past, someone who is engaged in visual communication. "Art" should mean they understand and appreciate art; "director" should mean they are experienced in giving guidance to those they commission. But here lately, and I really mean the last fifteen to twenty years that's just not the case. I think it boils down to either little or no respect. Either from art directors or from illustrators. It was not always the case, there used to be a mutual respect for those in the visual arts. But now I see illustrators totally frustrated by art directors to the point of almost irreconcilable differences --this marriage is on the rocks for sure. Not that it's always the case but my feeling is that illustrators have lost any empathy for art directors so let me try to give you a typical day in the life of an art director.

First of all they aren't just sitting around and they aren't spending a lot of their time looking for or at illustration. They have multiple meetings to go to, creative briefs to digest, account executives or editors to deal with, client meetings, presentations, concept development and more meetings; their mail could stack a foot high on any given day, their email mailbox is full, they're so busy you may wonder how they get any work done at all. It is a highly charged creative environment where their creative talent is tested and many times resisted by the powers that be. They may have a wonderful idea but it can be, and most times is, shot down by any number of people during the approval process. Getting a great idea through this process is incredibly difficult which is why you see so many poor ideas out there. On top of that as an art director these days you have to go out on a limb to even recommend illustration, so believe me they have been driven to select you as an illustrator by the desire to use illustration. Unfortunately it is a rarity, when you consider in the US alone there are over 7,000 art directors and only 1,500 are on the editorial side, illustration just isn't being used enough. So when they make that call, and yes it may be at 5:30 on a Friday, they are taking a calculated risk to use illustration, and another one to use you especially if you're someone they haven't used before. From an art director's standpoint it is always easier to recommend photography, it's easier to visualize for any non-art types, there's less to change, less to go wrong. With an illustration, an art director is taking a gamble, and if he or she is any good they're letting you solve the problem--how well you solve the problem has a great impact on them, their project and their career. Sometimes this ends up with a lot of second-guessing on their part--that usually means they're just nervous about what they're going to get. It’s a trust issue.

There are a lot of grips about ADs waiting to the last minute to give out assignments when there's very little time to do the job. Many times this is just a result of the approval process, an art director must first get the project, do the concept, the layout, present it, get it approved and then call you once the project is finally approved. This can take days, sometimes weeks and even a month or two, depending on how many layers there are at the firm. Sometimes it’s the client who has sat on the project, or they’re away on vacation, or they’re having trouble selling the idea to their boss. Any number of obstacles can cause a project to be delayed. Believe me at our agency it was not unheard of for a client to call at 5:30 on a Friday and want concepts done by Monday. Good clients know better but even they have rush deadlines every once in awhile. We pitched a hospital to do their recruitment advertising and found their schedule was to wait until 2:30 on Friday to begin the ad process for a Sunday placement that was due at 5:30--this would give us about 3 hours to do all the work necessary—layout, copy, visual--on any number of ads for that week. We said, politely, no way. We told them they had to have their ad request to us by Wednesday, we'd have the concept to them by Thursday and the ad would go to the papers on Friday at 5:30. We successfully moved three hours to three days, it just took a bit of explanation but they understood that it was in their best interest to follow our advice. Funny thing was their internal department had made a similar request and it had been shot down. Sometimes it takes an outside influence to change things on the inside. Illustrators can be that outside influence.

But please remember you are a freelancer, yours is not a 9-to-5, M-F existence, you are on-call 24/7. That’s the life of a freelancer. You have customers to please and you're working on their timetable, not yours. Now you don't have to accept the jobs at 5:30 on a Friday but someone will. You can tell your best customers that you will only accept rush jobs with a certain lead time, make it clear up front to any art director and you may find they'll work with you. Wait til the job is at hand and just don't count on it. As a suggestion, tell them you have another rush assignment this weekend and ask if there’s anyway they can move the deadline.

Another common frustration is when a client gave us a drop-dead deadline, we met the deadline by working overtime and then they'd always have time to make changes. It's just how it is. The client is always padding the due date, the agency pads theirs internally and then for outside vendors. Keep in mind the difference between using photography and illustration. With photography you may need some retouching after the piece comes to you but with illustration you don't know what you're getting until you get it. What if the heads not right, the background detail they thought would be there isn't, they have no where to run except back to you for a fix. They can't call a retoucher or do it on the fly; you're the only one they can turn to. So they’re going to pad the deadline.

I'm convinced if illustrators did a better job of building bridges with art directors there would be less resistance to using illustration and much more work for illustrators. Gaining respect is a two-way street; if we try walking in each other’s shoes every once in awhile we may find we’re more alike than different.

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