More craft please

Emma Hancock of Heroes & Villains on why craft in advertising still matters.
Emma Hancock - Headshot

By Emma Hancock

I remember my first (paid) day in advertising like it was yesterday. My boss ushered me over to the studio and showed me a “mechanical” and explained how an ad becomes an ad. For my first year, this was all I was there to do.

The truth is there was a craft to advertising that involved a collective of skilled individuals working together in a kind of office relay race. Each passing of the baton was a crucial step towards completion and anyone who dropped that baton would put the whole race in jeopardy.

Is the craft still an essential part of advertising today? The traditional notion of crafting an ad seems tactile and physical, yet our world has become digital and virtual. The onslaught of web advertising altered expectations too fast and cheap and, well, something had to give. With less time and money, quality – the other point on the “triangle of tradeoffs” – took a beating.

We’ve found and even created tools to help us move faster and cheaper. So now anyone with a Mac and Creative Suite 6 can create a magazine ad. Get yourself a Canon 5D and, guess what, you’re a videographer. Technology has done so much to make our industry move quicker. But has the pendulum swung too far?

According to veteran creative director Rick Kemp, “topicality and immediacy has superseded craft – everyone now has the tools at their disposal to create content and upload it for the world to see (and hope it goes viral) without paying too much attention to the craft, if at all.”

South of the border, Greg DiNoto, CCO at Deutsch New York, says, “more and more, consumers believe they have become connoisseurs of advertising and marketing. And we are slaves to that connoisseurship. We must be excellent storytellers, strategists, filmmakers, developers, producers and fortunately we live for being excellent.”

With craftsmanship still paramount, but harder to come by, I wondered what was happening at the academic level.

I spoke to Tony Kerr, associate professor at the Faculty of Design at OCAD: “Has the emphasis on craft diminished in the ad industry? Yes. Has the emphasis diminished at OCAD? No. A brand has a story and storytelling can come out in many different ways and that’s what we have to perfect. It takes craft to do that.”

What about the arts? Does craftsmanship still get top billing? I spoke with Martin Campbell, the director of the Bond movie Casino Royale. Why, I asked, did he have to crash three Aston Martins for a 15-second sequence of film? Couldn’t he just simulate that? The answer was an emphatic “never.”

“The audience can sense when it’s CGI,” Martin said, “and they disengage – they feel they’ve been cheated.”

Terry Collier, one of Canada’s foremost photographers was matter-of-fact saying, “I prefer to get everything in-camera. That’s where the craft comes in. It’s easy to throw stuff in after-the-fact but it just never looks real.”

Finally, I explored the hypothesis with fashion. In today’s world of one-season-only apparel, does craft really matter?

“Absolutely,” says Bruce Sinclair, director of fashion and luxury goods at Styleczar.ca. “While technology may be able to replicate some of the functions, it is the craftspeople who innovate, create and push the boundaries.”

So it looks as if it’s unanimous – craft still matters. Is it essential? Unfortunately, no. Does it make things more desirable? Yes. One thing I know for sure is that now, craftsmanship is a meaningful differentiator in advertising.

Emma Hancock is a founding partner of Toronto-based Heroes & Villains Advertising. After 15 years of diligently crafting campaigns, she’s become a strong believer in the power of storytelling and its ability to turn brands into heroes.