Those with the most to lose are the last to change

Something you notice, if you live long enough, is that life is not one damn thing after another. It's really the same damn thing over and over again....

Something you notice, if you live long enough, is that life is not one damn thing after another. It’s really the same damn thing over and over again.

As revolution upon revolution washes over the world of communications, you start to notice an odd similarity in the patterns of resistance to and acceptance of change.

I think I will call it Base’s Axiom of Change, and it will read something like New ways of doing things will be embraced first by those with the least to lose and the most to gain. Its corollary could perhaps be Those whose stake is in the process will resist change most. Those whose stake is in the outcome will resist change least.

As communications practices evolve, certain procedures are perceived as industrial, and certain procedures are perceived as artistic. I have a suspicion that if change is related to an artistic outcome, it will happen faster and easier than if change is related to an industrial outcome.

This is largely because the last thing those committed to a certain industrial way of doing something want to do is change anything about how it’s done.

Ad agencies, for example, used to employ art buyers. Once the agency had sold the client the concept of an ad, the process of getting it produced became sort of industrial. Put it out to tender. Select the lowest competent bidder. Illustrators are a dime a dozen and there’s no real difference.

Then, along came The Creative Revolution. The Revolution embraced photography over illustration. And suddenly art directors wanted to choose exactly the right photographer, because photographers were visual artists who would help them maximize the impact of their visions (to say nothing of their salaries and job prospects).

ADs pored over photographers’ portfolios, debated lighting, fussed over casting, and met with the prop person for hours on end to get exactly the right Tiffany lampshade, a portion of which appeared in the window of the second bedroom on the left. Ads got rather more expensive, but who cared? This is art, man, and I’m going to the podium with this one for sure!!

Same thing happened with TV production, which was viewed as a quasi-industrial process until the late ’60s. Before that, a storyboard created by people who probably brought their lunch to work in a black metal box was approved by the client and overseen by a television producer hired by the agency from a TV network.

The TV producer was king of the industrial process that involved flying to Los Angeles with a storyboard, being wined and dined by production houses, and returning three weeks later with a reel of 35 millimetre film. Then, practically overnight, TV became an artistic process. If the spot you dreamed up won a Gold somewhere, your salary could double. You’re going to leave producing this baby to a technician? The hell you are.

Now the creative director, the art director, the writer, the account super and the client flew to L.A. and spent days on location, mostly standing around looking over the director’s shoulder. Back at the agency, the new ‘TV producer’ was an attractive young lady who did not fly to Los Angeles, but spent a lot of time on the telephone getting sample reels sent over, booking flights to Los Angeles for other people and making pots of coffee.

In turn, even the freaking art directors had to change when Macs came along. I know there were plenty of megabuck ADs who balked at putting down their felt markers, preferring to channel through a Mac operator who translated their artistic vision into digital assemblies. Horsefeathers! said agency owners. We’ve got to buy a six-figure art director an $80,000 computer and then hire a $50,000 tech guy to work it?

I had lunch the other day with my friend and long-time print expert. He believes the film house he works for will make its last piece of film within two years. Already, they’re proposing that their clients install high-resolution monitors on their desks, allowing them to approve assemblies of ads online, before they’re shipped, online, to the magazines and newspapers. This is bad news for the courier industry, folks.

Nonsense! said a client at a very large bank. I can’t approve an ad on a computer monitor. My friend asked him why. You can’t trust computers, said the client.

Maybe you’re right, he replied, but as long as we’re prepared to do our banking online with you, you might consider approving ads online with us.

All together now, The times they are a-changin’!

Barry Base creates advertising campaigns for a living. He writes this column to blow off steam, and as a thinly disguised lure to attract clients who may imagine working with him could be a productive and amusing experience. Barry can be reached at (416) 924-5533, or faxed at (416) 960-5255, at the Toronto office of Barry Base & Partners.