Creative Differences Between Copywriters and Art Directors

Charles E. Young
Ameritest®

Clients and agencies alike appreciate the role that effective advertising executions can play in multiplying the impact of expensive media dollars in an increasingly cluttered world of television communication. Finding ways to better manage the process of advertising development in order to improve the odds of creating truly effective advertising is therefore a major area of interest to advertising managers.

Advertising effectiveness can only be defined in terms of consumer response to the advertising. But one of the creative process issues identified by Kover, James, and Sonner (Kover, 1997) is that 'the defining audience for advertising creative people is other advertising people and creatives in particular. That is, the people to whom creatives look to for validation of their work are other professionals.' This is one of the reasons that the judgment of creative award shows appears to be held in much higher esteem by most advertising creatives than research demonstrating the effectiveness of the advertisements they create. Importantly, the researchers noted above found that the response of advertising professionals to a sample of television commercials was quite different from the response of a sample of consumers to these commercials.

In theory, advertising researchers have a vital role to play in bridging the gap between consumer perceptions of an advertisement and the different, professional perceptions of the advertisement that its creators have. Freistad and Wright (1995) found a high degree of congruence between researchers' and consumers' beliefs about advertising, which they attribute to the greater degree of contact that researchers have with the consumer in their work. In practice, however, research is all too frequently used only to evaluate advertising, which, from a creative point of view, is counterproductive to the advertising creation process (Kover, 1995).

The difficulty that researchers have in communicating with advertising creatives is, in one sense, no different from the difficulties advertising creatives have in communicating with consumers. Both have trouble seeing things from the point of view of their audience. Yet creatives generally concede that the one area that research can make a difference in the creative process is when it is used to help define a target audience and its needs (Kover, 1995). For advertising research practitioners, it is important to understand that one of the most important target audiences for the research that we conduct are the people who, at the end of the day, as Leo Burnett once said, have to pick up their pencils and actually create the advertisement. It is fitting, therefore, that the tools of consumer research itself be used to study the mindset of this important segment of end-users of research, advertising creatives.

The term 'creative' is used to collectively identify a heterogeneous group of advertising professionals - copywriters, art directors, producers, and even, in the age of the internet - computer programmers. Theories of multiple intelligence (Cardner, 1993) suggest that creative talent comes in a wide variety of forms. In order to understand the process of creating advertising, it may be necessary to analyze the players in the creative process as distinct segments. Bohm (1996) has described the process of creativity in general in terms of the dynamic process of dialogue. Kover (1995) has studied the implicit theories that advertising copywriters use in the creation of advertising and describes the process in terms of an internal dialogue. Additional work needs to be done to better understand the differences in the creative thought process between copywriters and other, nonverbal types of advertising creatives.

One of the most lasting improvements in the organizational process of creating advertising was made by William Bern-bach who, in the 1960s, instituted creative teams, each comprised of a copywriter and an art director. This change is credited with bringing about a revolution in the quality of creative work. The collaboration of different talents is clearly the key to the creation of powerful advertising. Yet other than suggesting that two-person teams provide companionship and consensual validation, little research has been done to explain why this organizational change made such a dramatic difference in the creation of advertising.

Art directors and writers obviously bring different artistic sensibilities to the process of creating advertising. Moles (1962) has used the conceptual framework of Information Theory to describe how there are, theoretically, different kinds of information present in esthetic objects. The old saying that one picture is worth a thousand words is fundamentally wrong - there is information contained in a picture which cannot be translated at all into words and vice versa. The ability to easily process or manipulate verbal information, as compared to visual information, is clearly what distinguishes copy-writers from art directors. In other words, writers and art directors process different kinds of information uniquely and therefore 'see' the world differently. Our question is: What are the differences in how they perceive advertisements? Consequently, to gain insight into the  underlying process of creating advertising, it is useful to focus attention on the differences in the attitudes and perceptions of these two creative types regarding  directors television advertising.

METHOD

Telephone interviews were conducted  among 100 creatives drawn from a random sample of 4A's advertising agencies.  To qualify, respondents had to have been  employed a minimum of three years in the  business. In order to represent a diversity of agency philosophies, a maximum of two creatives per agency were interviewed. Finally, to explore differences in attitudes between these two creative types, a quota sample of 50 art directors and 50 copywriters were interviewed.

TABLE 1: SAMPLE CHARACTERISTICS

Characteristics

All creatives (100)
%

Art directors (50)
%

Copywriters (50)
%

Sex

 

 

 

Male

75

76

74

Female

25

24

26

Age

 

 

 

20-34

37

40

34

35-49

51

44

58

50+

12

16

8

Length of time in business 
3-9 years 

31

28

38

10 or more years

69

72

62

Creative awards 

 

 

 

Addy

52

60

44

Clio

15

10

20

Effie

4

2

6

 

 

 

 

The study was commissioned and analyzed by Ameritest, with data collection provided by Survey Center LLC of Chicago, a nationally recognized research company.

A profile of the ending sample is shown in Table 1. Three-quarters of the sample were males and one-quarter female, with a good range of ages represented. A large majority of the sample were very experienced creatives with 10 or more years in the business. The majority of the sample was also award-winning creatives over half reported that they had won an Addy award, one in six were Clio winners, and one in twenty had won an Effie. Importantly, the demographic and professional profiles of the art directors are quite similar to the profiles of the copywriters so that the differences between the two groups reported below are unlikely to be due to differences in these factors.

CREATIVE ATTITUDES

Confirming the findings of Kover et al., one attitude is almost universally held by agency creatives: 89 percent of our sample agreed with the statement 'Advertising professionals see different things in a commercial than the average consumer does.'

A complete list of the attitude statements that creatives rated is shown in Table 2. In general, the majority of creatives agree that good advertising is simple and direct and should be fresh and original.

A sizable majority of creatives agree that the best commercials 'leave something to the viewers' imagination.' In other words, the best advertising does not treat the consumer as a passive viewer but rather engages the consumer as an active participant in the creation of the advertising experience. The concept of 'interactivity,' therefore, is thought to be relevant to advertising effectiveness in general, n just internet advertising. This finding consistent with Kover's finding that cop' writers view the process of creating an advertisement in terms of an interior dialogue with the consumer.

TABLE 2: ATTITUDES

 

Among all creatives

Attitude ratings

Agree*
(%)

Disagree** 
(%)

Not certain
(%)

90% Agreement
The best commercials are simple and direct.

90

5

5

Advertising professionals see different things in a commercial than the
average consumer does.

89

6

4

80% Agreement Before an ad is produced, most clients can understand the words but have a hard time visualizing the final film.

86

8

6

With television, consumers can see ideas that they cannot put into words.

86

8

6

70% Agreement
The most important thing about a television commercial is that it be
fresh and original.

78

15

7

The best commercials are ones that do not say or show too much, but
rather leave something to the viewer's imagination.

70

20

10

60% Agreement
In general, European advertising is more visual than American advertising.

69

14

17

If I could see my commercials through the eyes of the viewer, I would be able to make better advertising.

66

25

9

Writers conceptualize ads differently than art directors do.

63

25

12

My favorite commercials are those which are very witty in their use of language.

61

28

11

50% Agreement
The movie industry is ahead of the advertising industry in terms of advances in film technique.

57

35

8

American advertising today is getting a little stale versus how it was a few years ago.

50 

38

12

40% Agreement
The increasing cost to produce a finished ad will one day inhibit my ability to fully express my ideas.

49

44

7

 The most important element in a television commercial is the visual.

45

45

10

You can tell the difference between a commercial created by an art director and a commercial created by a writer.

45

42

13

Many of the commercials on TV today are too wordy.

45

38

16

In most agencies, copywriters have more control than art directors do over the kinds of commercials that get produced.

45

33

22

30% Agreement
Music is the most powerful tool for generating emotion in advertising.

36

49

14

20% Agreement Commercials which are highly verbal tend to score better in copy testing research than commercials that are highly visual.

23

43

34

10% Agreement

 

 

 

American culture forces us to put an emphasis on copy rather than the visuals.

19

67

14

*(Agree = Top-two-box 'strongly agree/agree')
**(Disagree = Bottom-two-box 'strongly/disagree/disagree')

There is also general agreement that 'with television, consumers can see ideas they can't put into words.' But surprisingly, only about half of creatives thin that the most important element in a television commercial is the visual. Creative are polarized in terms of their perception of the relative contribution of visuals yes sus copy versus music in terms of advertising performance.

Importantly, two-thirds of creative agree that there are major differences is how writers and art directors conceptual size advertising. Roughly half of creative agree that you can tell the difference between a commercial created by an art director and a commercial created by a writer. Moreover, half of the creatives in this sample feel that in most agencies copywriters have more control than art directors do over the kinds of commercials that get produced.

WRITERS AND ART DIRECTORS

Table 3 shows differences in attitudes between writers and art directors. While many of these differences are only directional due to the small size of the sample, these differences are intriguing.

Art directors are more likely than writers are to see a difference in the kinds of commercials created by art directors versus those created by copywriters. And, importantly for researchers, art directors appear more likely to hold the belief that 'copytesting' research has a verbal bias in, terms of the types of advertisements that score well - a belief held by almost one quarter of the creatives in this sample.

Not surprisingly, art directors have a nonverbal bias and copywriters a verbal bias in their attitudes. While it is a minority view, art directors are more likely to hold the belief that music, the other nonverbal element in the advertising besides the visual, is the most powerful tool for generating emotion in advertising. They are also somewhat more sensitive to the fundamental idea that, with television, consumers can see ideas they can't put into words.

TABLE 3: ART DIRECTORS AND COPYWRITERS

 

Among all creatives

 

A

B

Strongly Agree/Agree with attitude

Art Directors
(50)

Copywriters
(50)

With television, consumers can see ideas they cannot put into words.

92 B 

80

The most important thing about a television commercial is that it be fresh and original.

84 b

72

Advertising professionals see different things in a commercial than the average consumer does. 

82 

96 A

The movie industry is ahead of the ad industry in terms of advances in film technique.

70 B

44

Copywriters conceptualize ads differently than art directors do.

68

58

The increasing cost to produce a finished ad will one day inhibit my ability to fully express my ideas.

56b

42

You can tell the difference between a commercial created by an art director and a commercial created by a writer. 

56B

34

In most agencies, copywriters have more control than art directors over the kinds of commercials that get produced.

50

40

Music is the most powerful tool for generating emotion in advertising.

46 B

26

Many of the commercials on TV today are too wordy.

40

50

Commercials which are highly verbal tend to score better in copy testing research than commercials that are highly visual.

32B

14

American culture forces us to put an emphasis on copy rather than the visuals. 

26 B

12

A/B: Capital letter = 90% Confidence Level; Lower case letter = 80% Confidence Level

 In contrast, writers are more sensitive to the number of words that are used in television copy - in particular, they are more sensitive to the criticism that many commercials today are 'too wordy.' One might hypothesize that this is due to their belief that they are frequently forced by clients to write more rather than less about the features and benefits of the products they are selling.

Art directors are more likely than writers to hold the belief that the movie industry leads the advertising industry in the development of film technique. This may reflect differences in the sources of inspiration for these two creative types. Possibly, art directors are more likely to be 'students of film' while the creative process of writers is more likely to be rooted in their experiences with books.

THE IDEAL REEL

Indeed, this research provides some evidence supporting the notion that writers and art directors fundamentally conceptualize television commercials differently. One of the questions respondents were asked in this study was to give examples of their favorite television commercials. In a sense, by providing these examples creatives were being asked to construct an 'ideal reel' which would define a standard of quality by which they would like their own work to be judged.

The definitions of 'quality' represented by the ideal reels constructed by art directors and writers appear to be different. This is suggested by differences in the open-ended responses that creatives gave explaining their reasons for choosing their favorite commercials, as seen in Table 4.

Humor is the leading factor driving creatives' choices for their favorite commercials, both for writers and art directors. But after that, the differences suggest differences in conceptualizations of an ideal reel.

Art directors more than copywriters cite originality, uniqueness, and the visual look of the advertising, followed by the attention-getting power and memorability of their favorite commercials. In contrast, copywriters appear to value more highly the persuasiveness of the commercial, particularly in terms of how credible it is, how intelligent it is, and how well people can relate to it.

TABLE 4: REASONS FOR CREATIVES FAVOURITE COMMERCIALS

A B C
All Creatives (100)
(%)
Art Directors (50)
(%)
Copywriters (50)
(%)
Reasons Why Like  Favorite Commercial
Humorous 41 38 44
Original/unique 27 c 36c 18
Way it was produced  24 22  26
Visual/overall look  24 30 c 18
Simplicity of it 23 20 26
Gets your attention 19 24 14
Could relate to it 19 12 26 B
Straightforward/to the point  17 B 8 26 aB
Like the music 14 18 10
Use of celebrities 14 10 18
Fun 13 12 14
Right choice of characters 12 14 10
Emotional 11 12 10
Memorable 8 12 c 4
Purely entertaining  7 10
Believable/credible 6 B 0 12 aB
Intelligent 5B 0 10 B
A/B/C: Capital letter = 90% Confidence Level; Lower case letter = 80% Confidence Level

As a possible subject for further research, these findings also imply that there might be significant differences in terms of the relative importance that art directors and copywriters attach to widely used research measures of commercial performance. As a hypothesis, art directors might be expected to place more importance on measures such as attention writers may place more importance on measures of persuasiveness or motivation.

AMERICAN AND EUROPEAN ADVERTISING

When asked to rate European and American advertising on a number of different dimensions of creative excellence, these American creatives consistently give higher marks to European advertising. The key differences are the originality of the ideas and the visual, as shown in Table 5.

These perceptions are supported by the generally held belief among this sample of American creatives that European advertising is more visual than American advertising. Yet creatives reject the notion that American culture itself is the underlying cause of this difference.

This suggests that the advertising development process as conducted by American companies and agencies may be different, and more biased toward verbal communication, than the process followed in Europe. With respect to the role of advertising research in the United States, for example, researchers might ask themselves why television pre-testing research is so frequently referred to as accepting of the role that research can play 'copytesting'?

TABLE 5: EUROPEAN VS. AMERICAN ADVERTISING EXCELLENCE

A B
European Advertising American Advertising
(100) (100)
(%) (%)
All Creatives Rated  'Excellent' *  
The visual 60 B 33
Powerful ideas 40 B 21
Originality 65 B 18
The writing  32 B 18
Effectiveness 31 B 15
Overall quality 40 B 28
A/B: Capital letter = 90% Confidence Level; Lower case letter = 80% Confidence Level
*(Top-three-box score on ten-point scale)

 ATTITUDES CHANGE WITH EXPERIENCE

Importantly, creative attitudes change with experience. Key differences are shown in Table 6.

Creatives with less time in the business are more likely to be driven by the desire to be fresh and original. With experience, however, creatives are more likely to understand the limitations of their own professional perceptions in terms of how they make a connection with the consumer. In particular, more experienced creatives appear to become increasingly sensitive to the importance of visual effectiveness in television advertising.

As a positive note for advertising researchers, it also appears that with experience some creatives may become more

CONCLUSIONS

A number of insights into the creative development process are suggested by this study.

  1. There are indeed important differences in the attitudes and perceptions of advertising writers and art directors. To think of advertising 'creatives' as one group, therefore, may be misleading. A better understanding of the process of getting to effective advertising is likely to come only as a result of a deeper understanding of the differences in how different creative talents operate rather than through a single, generic definition of 'creativity.'
  2. The long-term success of Bernbach's model for reorganizing agency creative departments into teams underscores the importance of collaboration in the advertising development process. Blending together two creative types effectively improved the chemistry of the creative process. One reason why collaboration may be so important is that it allows the copywriter to get past the self-centered limitations of the interior dialogue described by Kover (1995) and find a more appropriate 'other' in the responses of an external audience—in this case, the creative partner. A similar, but somewhat more threatening, process is generated by focus group research when a creative, watching through the one-way mirror, discovers that the consumer responds to an advertisement in completely unexpected ways. But to suggest that that is the only reason why Bernbach's reorganization works seems like an insufficient explanation. Otherwise, why not simply team two writers together, or two art directors? Bernbach's insight was that writers and art directors look at advertisements in different ways and see different things in them. On some level, the process of generating a creative dialogue probably requires a collaborative disagreement or divergence in perceptions—as in the movement from thesis to antithesis to synthesis— to produce truly original work.
  3. The visual component of a television advertisement appears to be particularly problematic for the advertising development process. Most creatives agree that clients have trouble visualizing the final commercial at the conceptual stage. One problem, in particular, is that many clients may not have a well-developed 'vocabulary' for describing what they 'see' in a storyboard and how they expect it to translate into final film. As a result, the dialogue which must take place between client and agency during creative development undoubtedly suffers from too much attention being given to the copy, which is easy to talk about, and too little attention to the visuals, which are hard to talk about.
  4. There may be an organizational bias in many agency power structures that favors writers over art directors. Nearly half of the creatives in our sample believe this to be true, with art directors somewhat more sensitive to the issue than writers. It is certainly a fact if we look at the history of the industry. We can find many more examples of writers heading major advertising agencies, such as Leo Burnett or Hal Riney, than examples of art directors rising to the top of agency power, like Lee Clow. Civen the differences we have shown in the advertising preferences of these two creative types, if writers have more control than art directors do over the kind of advertisements that ultimately get produced, this factor in the creative development process would work against the creation of more visually effective advertising.
  5. Finally, the kinds of advertising research done in this country may favor the types of advertisements created by writers over those created by art directors. Recall and other types of TV commercial research measures that ask the consumer to distill the television advertising experience into words may be short-changing more visually creative advertising. A significant number of art directors in our survey hold this view. In the future, one way that research can be used to enhance the creative development process is through the development of more balanced methods of advertising measurement which can give full weight to the visual power of television advertising.

TABLE 6: ATTITUDE RATINGS BY BUSINESS EXPERIENCE

What else does this article talk about?

  • Imagery & art direction
  • Copywriting & slogans
  • Creative briefing
  • Creative briefing
  • Creative briefing
  • Findings from effectiveness awards
  • Ad testing theories & ideas

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