John Bukowinski: What are your thoughts on the state of the creative industry—struggling agencies, working from home, taking career risks and The Future?
David Swope: Ad agencies will be stuck in this limbo for a while. People aren’t shopping, and they’re not buying, so clients are holding onto their money. There’s going to be a big resurgence—a post pandemic boom—but it may not happen until 2023. If you look at what happened historically, following the 1918 flu pandemic, then came the “Roaring Twenties.” We are going to be pent up wanting to socialize, travel and spend. Conspicuous consumption will mark the return of advertising. It’s going to be a heyday for companies that are making things that people have been waiting to buy. People are going to buy new cars. And pants.
There’s a dynamic with small agencies. They’re agile, they can turn on a dime, they can work with small budgets compared to older, more established agencies. The big agencies are behemoths. They have a bureaucracy, they’re wedded to their workflow and they’re slower to adapt. Are they going to go extinct, or are they going to adapt and become more agile themselves?
I honestly don’t know what’s going to happen to the big agencies. IPG has a city block in SF that’s three stories of emptiness right now. A lot of agencies are like that. But small shops are set up where you don’t have to be local. You can work remotely for a client across the country. It’s so much easier to work on Zoom with eight or nine people than it is to work across an infrastructure of 300.
There’s no doubt that COVID has accelerated some of the trends that were already taking place before this all happened. But is something lost when you don’t have the immediacy of person-to-person contact, especially when it comes to concepting? For example, I used to be in a room with other creatives with a big blank whiteboard, and I loved the dialogue, riffing and spitballing. It’s hard to pull that off on Zoom.
I miss the whole energy of creative development. The camaraderie. You’re marinating in ideas and you can throw out an idea and say, “Hey, does this work?” I think back to the early part of my career. As an intern, I’d walk into peoples’ offices and they had their boards and their work on the wall. To meet with them, you actually had to go into their office. Over the last few years, it’s become wide open floor plans with people getting pushed tighter together with no space for brainstorming. In this era of COVID, nobody’s gonna want to go back to that. I used to be seated at one table among 10 people. If somebody sneezed, good luck.
Maybe what happens eventually is there will be a dedicated space where people can meet face-to-face when they need to. But otherwise, it’s all remote.
When meeting with clients, there’s something critical about actually being there. It says, “We are in this together.” You can read the room so much better in person. On Zoom I can only tell whether you’re nodding along with me or not, but not that you’re strumming your fingers or distracted by an incoming text.
No matter how sophisticated technology becomes in the next few years, you really can’t replicate that actual physical contact; we’re hard-wired to respond to those subtle emotional nuances that we read with each other.
It’s especially hard from a design standpoint. You can’t share sketches, scrap or visual ideas as easily as if you’re in the same room. We used to have the art books, photo books, annuals and things that you’d be flipping through. You’d both be inspired by stuff that you’d find. It’s really hard to do that type of spontaneous sharing online.
There’s a creative inertia when you’re face-to-face that, if you don’t address it quickly, it just stalls and falls flat. If you have to take the time to type a message or do a call, that inertia can vaporize. It’s a fragile thing.
How do you feel about risk-taking—has a calculated risk ever helped you in your career?
I took a chance when I left McCann to go to TiVo. I had a big agency job. We were working on huge brands—Microsoft, HP—but it was an opportunity to become an Executive Creative Director and try client-side. The economy at that time was tanking, so I took a bit of a calculated risk. I had an opportunity to rebrand TiVo. I built an agency-like creative team and got leadership experience, so all in all, it was a good experience. Although I drove three and a half hours a day getting there and back.
So would you recommend that creatives get out of their comfort zone, take a risk and just roll with it? No matter what the consequences?
Not necessarily. The consequences can be bad. When you’re looking for your next move, think of your career as if you’re standing in a pond on a stepping stone, with other stepping stones all around.* You have to know where you want to go. You have to decide what your end goal is, because if you take a step backwards, or if you go another direction, you’re going to be farther from where you want to be. You should always know what your end destination is and try to keep moving that way. *Credit Jon Anderson, Creative Director.
In your opinion, what does the future hold for creative professions?
Here are some thoughts. First, artificial intelligence is eliminating jobs, but not creative jobs. So make sure that you are in a creative position and enjoy that, because your job is pretty safe.
Second, I mourn the loss of Big Ideas. We’ve seen since the 1990s that ADHD, social media and TikTok have shortened attention spans. Media has been fragmented because of trends like lifecycle marketing. With pixel tracking, marketers find you on the internet and on your social media, and target you relentlessly. Advertising is optimized and beats you into submission. Because of that, you never see campaigns with Big Ideas any more. I can’t think of any taglines from the past five years.
Third, nobody’s going to be watching commercial TV. Nobody’s going to read banner ads. But they will read or watch branded content. That, plus interactive video is going to be big. High quality immersive VR/360º films are still nascent, but they’re getting there. Also, look for serialized content—connected stories that lead you along a deeper brand experience.
Finally, there’s The Funnel, a metaphor used to describe the consumer purchase process. Most agencies are content just trying to get people into the top of The Funnel with brand advertising, and that’s as far as they go. But it’s important to know what the whole Funnel story is so that you can lead consumers through the entire journey. Then if you deliver an offer at the right time, they will convert. That’s basically the end of the story. Sure, the beginning is important, but more critical is the ending. And hopefully at the end you have a happy — and loyal — customer.
Nice, I like that. Thanks, David!
David Swope is a creative director and filmmaker 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 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.
View David’s work at SwopeCreative.com