Creative Director David Swope on recent changes to the creative industry.

By John Bukowinski, Creative Director, Design

John Bukowinski:

How did you get your start as a creative?

David Swope:

I grew up in Palo Alto as a child of the seventies. I was always making things. Some of my influences creatively were Dr. Seuss, Calvin and Hobbs and then The Far Side. They each have a loose, organic style of drawing with a twisted sense of humor, and that was something I tried early on. My dad had a Super 8 mm camera, and in high school, the neighborhood kids and I made stop motion films, and we made a horror movie. That gave me a taste of storytelling. I didn’t realize it would turn into a career making TV commercials.

John Bukowinski:

So video was a big part early on.

David Swope:

Video was a big part early on, and also cartooning. A third thing was architecture. We had a remodel going on at my house as I was growing up. So I was hanging out with the architect all the time. I’d take graph paper and draw what I thought it should look like and where I wanted to put stuff and things like that. All my architect friends say, “Be glad you didn’t go into architecture.”

John Bukowinski:

Yeah, there’s a common thread here. I’ve seen that a lot, where there’s a link between architecture and design or creative direction, advertising. I’ve heard of a lot of people transitioning from architecture to the commercial arts.

David Swope:

I have a theory on that. We did a remodel in the house I’m in right now. It was kind of a fixer. And what is similar is that when you come into a brand in advertising, you look at it with potential, like it’s a fixer-upper. And so as a creative person, you kind of can see what it could be.You imagine a new look for it. Maybe you imagine a new style, not just a new coat of paint. You want to tear down some walls and rebuild it, bring in some new furniture and make it livable for you — or for your client basically. So in a way, that’s how I look at advertising. It’s like an architectural challenge.

John Bukowinski:

Were you a creative kid? What kind of influences did you have growing up that nudged you toward a creative career?

David Swope:

I moved on from doing a lot of my own cartoons to being the editor-in-chief of the high school newspaper. I had a great advisor who taught layout and deadlines. Those are two things that kind of rubbed off on me as a designer, as an art director. How to design big pages overall, how to design copy, and also do some writing. It helped me to write headlines and write copy, and then I used my illustrations and my cartoons. In a way, advertising is an extension of journalism—a higher paid extension.

John Bukowinski:

Yeah, it’s interesting that you’re into writing. That’s another common characteristic of creative director types, that they like to look at things from a bird’s eye view and see the big picture. And oftentimes writing goes really well with that tendency.

David Swope:

I never saw myself as being a writer. I wrote because it was a way to tell a story. I liked creative writing and I enjoyed advertising. Just short headlines. If you’re going to be a creative director, you have to understand both sides. I’ve partnered with a lot of copywriters. So I know the benefit of working with somebody who is a professional writer. They bring a lot to it that I don’t have. It’s a great partnership when you’re a visual person, to have somebody with a verbal background, for creative sparring and ideation. But as you get to a point where you have to instruct all creatives, copywriters, and art directors, you have to be able to understand how to fix an idea and how to craft an edit, a headline or body copy.

John Bukowinski:

Did you have encouragement to follow your passion from your parents and your community?

David Swope:

My parents encouraged me to follow my heart in art and commercial art, as it was called back then, and they saw that I was good at making things. It wasn’t anything that ran in our family. I ended up studying design at UCLA. When you go through a design program, your path can split into becoming a designer or an art director. At that point, I could have been a graphic designer, but I’m not a perfectionist. I love art and design when it is perfect, but I don’t need to finesse it and finagle it to the point where I spend weeks kerning and exploring every different type, and all the different color combinations. But I do love the craft of design.

So to me design is ‘perfection,’ while advertising is ‘action’. And by that I mean advertising is constantly changing, and you have deadlines, and you may get something into the market, and then it’s gone. You can also evolve a campaign over time. When you design a logo, that’s it. You have to live with it. But an ad campaign just comes and goes. I like the deadlines, the adrenaline rush, the chance to change direction and to work on a lot of different projects at once.

John Bukowinski:

Deadlines; that’s a topic I wanted to address. How have they changed for you from early on in your career to now? Do you feel like they’ve become more aggressive?

David Swope:

I’m dating myself, but there was a time when deadlines were based on the FedEx person, and you’d be working on stuff and they’d say, “All right, FedEx is leaving at 5:15”. So you get all your layouts done. They stick them in an envelope, and that’s it. You wait till the next day to hear from the client. And then, there was this extended period of time with a lot of back and forth. Digital has made feedback quicker, but it’s also removed a lot of the concept time. It’s been able to speed up our process, but it’s removed a lot of experimentation. That’s what comes when you have time – when you sit on an idea and you kind of say, well, we could lay it out this way, or we could build something, we could craft it together out of different textures, or we could explore fonts.

Then you had time to go out and shoot something, but now people just go on Getty, grab an image, use a template, and in 20 minutes they’re done. The account people or clients are driving these timelines. I feel like you as a designer have to put your foot down. You have to put your stake in the ground and say, “This is what I stand for. This is what I believe. And this is how I work. And I’m going to push back on unrealistic deadlines.”

John Bukowinski:

That’s a really important point. And I don’t know how often it falls on deaf ears. That’s a factor, but we also play it safe now because we have all this data to support what works. So we say, let’s just do this because we know it works. We have the metrics to support that versus doing something that’s way out in left field. That is a risk that we’re not willing to take as much anymore.

David Swope:

You’re absolutely right about the lack of risk-taking. It’s been an evolution. It didn’t all happen at once. In the late nineties, some of the best advertising in the world was being done in San Francisco. It was done by agencies like Goodby Silverstein and Butler, Shine & Stern, Goldberg Moser O’Neill and Chiat/Day. Even big agencies like FCB — they were doing some great Levi’s work. And each agency had its own brand. If you hired Hal Riney, for instance, you knew you were going to get folksy. Citron Haligman Bedeccare and Mandlebaum Mooney Ashley always had amazing art direction and design. If you hired Goodby, Black Rocket or Butler, you’d get edgy out-of-the-box thinking. That ingrained agency persona and brand went away with the dot-com explosion at the turn of the millennium. All these new companies sprang up, and new agencies to service them. Creatives left in droves to take stock options and work for the highest bidders. So all of a sudden, the creative talent in San Francisco was scrambled. Agencies lost their ability to stand for anything real, and it hasn’t been the same since.

Also, back in the 90’s, the media options were limited. You could only run TV, out-of-home, print and radio. Banners were just starting to take off. So it was much easier to craft a campaign. Everyone would see the same ads over and over. And you’d experience them as a campaign, not just one-offs. So to stand out, your campaign required a big idea. Newspaper, magazines and out-of-home were more important then than now. Billboards, the sides of buses, transit. People were looking for stuff to read on BART, not looking down at their iPhones. As far as TV, everybody saw the same commercials, because we all watched the same shows. In those days, it was “Friends” and “Seinfeld” every Thursday night. You had appointment TV. Then it fragmented with cable, and gaming and the internet of the early 2000’s. Thanks to streaming, nobody watches the same shows at the same time anymore. The only way that you get a commercial seen on a mass scale is through sports or events like the Academy Awards. That’s your only chance to really be timely with your marketing and launch a big idea that people will talk about.

Then everything turned into banners that were static or flash driven, HTML. There’s not much you can say in a tiny little banner. It’s all targeting and re-targeting. A company can target you and look at metrics and prove if something is working. They can A-B test anything—a visual, offer, or the CTA. And they’ll claim that eliminates the need for creativity. When I was a creative director at TiVo, I fought really hard for everything from banner headlines to the color of a button, because there were a lot of left-brained people who would push back and say, “Well, if this banner gets a 5% higher click-through rate, then we’re going to go with it, whether it’s more creative or not.”

John Bukowinski:

Yeah. You are singing a very familiar tune! I’ve had that experience countless times. Do you see any hope as a creative by means of dialoguing with those people, fighting the good fight and justify taking a little bit of risk?

David Swope:

When you get everybody on the same team on the same page, then you can start to push back creatively. Check out Start With Why by Simon Sinek. It’s also a great TED talk. If you’re not familiar with it, the main point is that if you’re a company, it doesn’t help to just know WHAT you sell. You have to know HOW and most importantly WHY. The example he uses is Apple. If they only said, “Apple makes computers and phones,” you’re not going to buy them. So start with WHY. WHY does Apple do what they do? They challenge convention with everything that they make. It’s been their tagline for decades: “Think different.” Then the next level is HOW they do it. They do it with smartly designed products. They’re easy to use and beautifully designed. The last level is WHAT they do. Any product that they make — a watch, an iPod, a phone, a computer, a blender. You’re going to buy an Apple blender if they make one because you believe that it will be different. So if you can get everybody in your company to agree to your WHY — the WHY you exist — then you can push back on them. With creative, you can say this creative marries up with our marching orders. We’re all marching in the same direction. And as long as the creative follows that emotionally-targeted direction, then you have a very good argument for everybody to get on board. Even people that may be in analytics, product development, or even in accounting. So that’s helpful. You almost have to be rational with your creativity for some people.

John Bukowinski:

Like a layered approach. Maybe you’re pitching it with the veneer of rationality, but inside there’s emotion.

David Swope:

Yes. And I believe that emotion is the only thing that’s going to get most people to buy. The amygdala is the part of the brain that says, “I need this Porsche.” Not, “This Porsche is a smart decision.” You can’t rationalize a decision like that. “Yeah. I need to drive a hundred miles an hour.” No, it makes you gotta have it. For example, you can make a list of all the reasons why people should buy a TiVo, but at the end of the day, they don’t want a list. They want TiVo to make their evenings more fun. And so “funner” became our tagline.

 

John Bukowinski:

The creative process is a strange beast. How do you tame yours?

David Swope:

I love the creative process. My motto is “Be Teflon,” because advertising is all about hearing rejection and getting past the word NO. “No, no, no, you can’t do that. We’ve done this. We’ve tried that, it’s never going to work.” Your partner doesn’t like it. The account team doesn’t like it. The client doesn’t like it. The client’s spouse doesn’t like it. You’re going to hear “no” all the time. You can’t just take it personally. You have to be happy with just coming up with ideas. So don’t marry your ideas — don’t be totally wedded to them. Be flexible — even your client may have a good idea for tweaking something. If you listen to people, you might find good ideas come from unexpected places.

John Bukowinski:

Yeah. I like the idea of that constraint of people saying no, it’s like the discipline of facing constant rejection that leads to novel ideas and concepts.

David Swope:

If you want novel concepts, there’s a story about a farmer who lets the cows out of the barn. You’ve got a bunch of cows out there, and the laziest ones are going to stop at the first grass that they come to. It’s a chewed up cud. It’s been maybe trampled on and it’s muddy. It’s been crapped on. And they’re going to stop, and they’re going to say, “Hey, this is good enough, I’ll just stop here.” The more adventurous cows go a little bit further and they’re going to come to a little better grass that’s fresher and a little tastier. The really adventurous cows are going to go out into the deep, deep grass where it’s fresh and beautiful and delicious. And that’s kind of like what you’re looking for as a creative director. You need to give your cows time, and you’ve got to push them out there and let them get through all the crap that everybody’s already come up with first. Then they’ll get to the new stuff that nobody’s seen.

John Bukowinski:

So how can you set yourself up to be one of those adventurous cows? What disciplines or rituals can you follow?

David Swope:

There’s a lot you can do to feed your creative soul, and you should never rest on your laurels. I’m constantly looking to maybe not reinvent, but to refresh myself creatively. I had an interview 10 years ago where the creative director said, “Dave, you and I are dinosaurs.”You don’t like to hear that, but in a way it’s true. So you have to constantly be looking at what’s ahead. Whether it’s social media or content, or filmmaking or lifecycle marketing, retargeting, that kind of thing. You have to plan for the next part of your career.

So how do you get here? If you’re a new creative, I would suggest a book by Luke Sullivan, “Hey, Whipple, Squeeze This.” It’s a fantastic and funny book, maybe more for copywriting than design. It’s been updated through the years, but it’s just a Bible for what works in advertising and what makes a Big Idea. I would also say brainstorm a lot. When you sit down to think of ideas, don’t just stop. Be that cow. Keep coming up with fresh ideas. I had a copywriter friend who would fold a piece of paper into 16 different squares. And he would write headlines into each one of those squares, even before sitting down to the computer. If the idea didn’t work at that size, it wasn’t going to work on a billboard.

Similarly, I brought a layout to a creative director early on in my career. It was a very simple headline-visual kind of layout. He gave it back to me, saying, “This is fine, but come back to me with 20 different layout versions of this using the same font and the same image.” I took it as a challenge. And I learned that you can make an ad look completely different, whether the headline’s huge or small or stacked, you kern it out, or tighten it up, you stretch the type one way or the other, or reverse the type out of the image. You can change the photo, whether it’s color or black and white, give it a tint, add a border—it’s limitless. There was a type designer named David Carson who tore apart fonts and just redesigned them and rebuilt them to the point where they were almost unreadable. But he’s a great inspiration. Don’t just settle with what the computer gives you. When you type out the headline, it’s giving you what it thinks everybody’s going to want kerned and leaded. Don’t be afraid to break that.

John Bukowinski:

What’s your balance when it comes to working collaboratively versus working solo?

David Swope:

I prefer to work with a partner. You definitely multiply the number of good ideas that you get. Professional writers bring a polish, a level of finish to the work. I can write headlines, but I can’t write dialogue. There are writers who excel at scripting TV commercials or radio. For instance, they can capture the nuance of two people talking to each other. Art directors and writers have always worked together. It’s that yin and yang. Look at Goodby and Silverstein. They have that same thing I was talking about. Jeff is a writer he’s much more outspoken. Rich is kinda more introverted and quieter.

John Bukowinski:

So the two go together.

David Swope:

Yeah. It’s like chocolate and peanut butter.

John Bukowinski:

Well said. Thanks, David!

 

David Swope is a creative leader and collaborator who delivers innovative and emotionally-relevant advertising and content. He has 20+ years’ experience creating award-winning integrated campaigns for San Francisco’s biggest ad agencies, including McCann, Venables Bell, Eleven, AKQA, Hal Riney, BBDO and Digitas. As Executive Creative Director at TiVo, he led a rebranding and brought the TiVo Guy logo to life for the first time. Clients have included Toyota, McDonald’s, HP, Microsoft, Flex Your Power, Jelly Belly and various tech and pro-bono clients. His filmmaking skills include directing, shooting and editing doc-style films and branded content. In his “spare” time, he writes piano jazz, golfs and is a children’s author.

He also wrote and illustrated a children’s book called The Spider King. Buy it on Amazon here

View David’s work at SwopeCreative.com


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