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5 Minutes with… Alexandra Taylor


On being adland’s Emmeline Panhurst, working with Paul Arden and advice for young art directors

5 Minutes with… Alexandra Taylor

This year Alexandra Taylor became the first woman to win the D&AD President’s Award – in recognition of her achievements throughout a prolific career. She was mentored by the likes of Dave Trott and the late Paul Arden, who she succeeded as Head of Art at Saatchi & Saatchi London before she then became joint Creative Director.  These days Alexandra devotes a lot of her time to art directors of the future, running master classes and working with the D&AD on training programmes. LBB’s Laura Swinton caught up with her to find out her golden rules of art direction and pick her brains about the state of the industry.

LBB> How did you get into advertising in the first place?

AT> Purely by accident and total naivety. I studied for four years in Newcastle upon Tyne and did graphic design. I actually went to college with someone who is very well known in the business to this day – Steve Dunn, a fellow Geordie. He left a year before me. I had always said that I was going to go down to London and when he got a job at BMB he said, “forget graphic design, do advertising because it’s much more glamourous”. Based on that one sentence I said, ‘oh, alright then’.

I was very lucky because when I got to London I was taken under the wings of a great mentor called Dave Trott. He helped me get a portfolio together in weeks, which is unheard of because most people study for three years at college or university. I managed to do that and I’ve just been pretty lucky throughout my whole career as I always managed to work with the best people in the business. Paul Arden too, he was very much my mentor.

LBB> I’d be interested to hear your thoughts, coming from Newcastle as you do, on whether the UK advertising industry is too London-centric. Do you think it’s doing enough to reach talented young people from outside of the capital?

AT>No I don’t, I absolutely think it is London-centric. My view is that we should be doing a lot more, really. But at the same time – and it might sound like I’m being a bit schizophrenic – I think any kid who wants to get into the industry, will get down to London. How keen and hungry you are counts for a hell of a lot. However I do think the industry could be doing far more.  

LBB> You’ve been involved in some really iconic campaigns over your career – which pieces of work have you been most proud of?

AT> By far the British Army, simply because it wasn’t working on something superficial, like a fashion brand or a margarine or a washing powder. There’s only one British Army. This is something that people risk their lives for.

One of the things the Brigadier said to me very early on in our discussions after the first presentation was, “I wouldn’t ask you how to run the British Army so I’m certainly not going to tell you how to do your job in advertising.” To this day that is still music to my ears because most clients are difficult with creative and they don’t get the best out of them. It was a very, very touching, close and collaborative relationship and one that I always use to this day when I’m talking to students. It’s a case study for where I wish to God we were with more clients.

The campaign I created with my partner at the time, Adam Kean, is at least 20 to 25 years old and they’re still going with the same art direction and the same strapline. And that’s unheard of. Most clients who take on a piece of business with an agency will, within a year, maybe less, keep changing it because of politics and because of their positioning .

LBB> Do you think clients are getting worse or less trusting in their relationship with creative?

AT> I think it’s sadly been eroding over the past ten years for sure. I think that in the 80s and 90s clients wanted great ads and they got great ads. Now, following the recession and with people being nervous, I think a lot of people are not getting the best out of their creative departments and a lot of them are bullying their creative into doing what they want. I just hark back to the Brigadier. What’s the point in getting involved with creatives if you’re not going to use their expertise?

LBB> You’ve done a lot of work with students and I’m really interested to hear the sorts of things you tell them and also what you’ve learned from working with them.

AT> I think it’s very interesting because I run courses not only in England but overseas too. One of the major differences comes up when I set a test and I tell them to bring along any ad that particularly inspired them to get into the business. If I do it in Asia and ask each individual kid ‘you loved this ad? So, can you tell me who did it? Can you tell me who the art director was?’ I guarantee that out of a group of 20, 18 will know. When I do the same thing in England I’ll be lucky if one or two people can answer. The world has shrunk. No longer are you competing with the guy in the next office, the world is global, D&AD and Cannes are global. It’s your job to know who the art director is and certainly who the agency is.  When I was their age I knew I wanted to work with the great Paul Arden. The best agency at the time was London Saatchi & Saatchi and I made it my duty to get under his wing. To learn your craft, to learn the skills of art direction, I say work with the best.

I also want to say that nobody appears to be teaching the skills of art direction any more. When I was younger there was definitely an apprenticeship. You learned all the traditional skills before you were let loose to do your first campaign or TV commercial. It appears nowadays that the youngsters are chucked in the deep end and are unsure of the skill set, as far as I can see in the work they produce.

The thing I find really frustrating is that they don’t know who the greats are. The godfather of advertising art directors is a great guy called Helmut Krone.  The number of times I can bring up his name to art directors of every level and they look at me and say ‘who is he?’ and I find myself having to tell them the history of advertising. Helmut Krone is inspiring work that, to this day, most art directors will refer to. They don’t know their history either. It’s just frustrating that many of them are not as advanced as they should be in this day and age.

LBB> Whose responsibility do you think that is? Is it about younger people not having the right attitude, schools not teaching them the right things, or agencies not training them properly when they take them on?

AT> I think when a young team is taken on there needs to be a very strong group head system in place within the agency. Most heads would have the time to work with them and help them develop.

Now it seems that you’ve got a executive creative director or creative director who is extremely busy and rushes from meeting to meeting and he, unfortunately, doesn’t have the time to spend with the kids. The kids have got to just pick up whatever they can from whoever. I often say we should go back to the old head system where someone is teaching the skills. There are still heads of art in agencies but far less than there used to be. Both head of copy and head of art direction should definitely be reintroduced.

There’s also this trend where teams say, ‘we’ll both be art director’ or ‘we’ll both be copywriter'. I’m not a major fan of that because for me someone has to take responsibility for the ad at the end of the day. I just feel the problem is that no one is really taking responsibility for the ad.

LBB> And how important is it that young creatives understand the production process?

AT> It’s critically important. Once they’ve been in the business for six years they should understand the fundamentals of typography, grading, editing, layout. I just think it’s like a child of seven not being able to walk or having to learn to speak. You have to have the fundamental learnings in order to excel at your chosen occupation. If you don’t know the basics then how can you go on to excel in that creative medium?

LBB> You’ve gone behind the camera and directed a few things yourself…

AT> Yes and I’ve shot print too. And that comes from my background. At Saatchis, Paul Arden really pushed the idea that an art director could be more than just an art director. ‘Why do you not shoot that commercial? Why can’t you take that photograph?”

I say that to the kids of today, especially with the frustration that I know they all feel with clients dictating how they do a lay out or they should shoot something. I say to them, “take that responsibility on”. It makes our jobs fun again and makes them more responsible for it.

LBB> Who are your creative inspirations or heroes?

AT> Most of them are still the big names. I’m a big fan of Steven Dunn, Paul Belford, Steve Dye, Rosie Arnold and Mark Reddy. All those boys for me are still producing great work so I’m still a big fan of them.

I don’t see that many young people coming through that I think ‘oh he’s good’. I remember seeing Belford come through as a young kid and thinking that he was amazing and that he would be amazing in the future.

I don’t know if that’s because they’ve been brought up properly and have the confidence to do something different. When someone does something wacky and different but doesn’t relate to the idea enough, I just find it trendy for the sake of being trendy.

LBB> It’s interesting you bring up that word ‘trendy’ – are people just chasing novelty for novelty’s sake?

AT> That’s true. I’ve always said do the opposite of what everyone else is doing. Maybe these kids lack a bit of confidence but they all seem to be copying each other. I see it in the work I see on TV, or anything in print. There are certain trends and everyone seems to be following these trends.  I was certainly brought up by Paul Arden to do the opposite.

LBB> If there was a person hungry to learn the basics, what would you tell them?

AT> I do give out my Eight Golden Rules to art directors when I meet them but they seem to change on a daily basis.

One thing I would say is that the art director usually spends more time with an ad in any format than the writer does. Once the idea is bought, make the ad as good as you can because you’re the one who’s going to spend more time with it than anybody else. It’s your baby for longer than anybody else. Make the ad as good as you can before you show it to your creative director; be excited about it.

The other the thing I hate is Cannes-type layout - meaning a bled-off picture with the logo at the bottom right hand corner. I would never approve an ad like that. I think it’s lazy, I think it’s outdated, there are other places you can put the logo.

I would also say work from the logo; make the logo your central anchor and work from that. Logos are usually ugly. Logos are something that every art director is trying to hide or get rid of but they’re not going to go away.

I’ve got millions of things to say about this! Always work with the best people because I usually find that the best people are the nicest people. They’ve got less of an ego, less of an attitude. I would certainly say work with the best if you can on every level.

LBB> Have there been pieces you’ve seen recently that you thought worked particularly well?

AT> I recently judged the Art Directors Club of Europe and there was an ad for a Mumbai newspaper and it won the Grand Cup Award. It was very simple, very strong and I thought it was beautifully art directed as a cinema ad. It got in the book at D&AD and it won big prizes in Mumbai and it’s just a striking ad that stayed with me.

LBB> You were awarded the President’s Award at this year’s D&AD – when did you find out?

AT> I wasn’t supposed to know about it but they had found out weeks earlier that I was going on holiday with my mother on the day they were handing it out. They panicked and had to tell me a week early and my mother got on a different flight from me.

But I’ll tell you something interesting that I only found out the other day: I am the first woman in 52 years to get the award. I thought it was quite a shocking thing, this being the 21st century. But that’s the truth. I was also actually the first woman to get onto the D&AD executive board in advertising, some years ago.  I was quite shocked though – I feel like the Emmeline Pankhurst of advertising today, believe it or not!

LBB> Have you got any thoughts about why the industry has been so slow to change?

AT> I’ve been asked this many times and I really don’t know the answer, to be honest. This sounds sexist but there’s a lot of rejection that goes on. Whatever level you are at you get rejected everyday. I can only talk about my experience but I’ve had to give this business all of my time. It’s like being a doctor on call. You get a call at four in the morning and you’ve got to react. I can have an idea at three in the morning and scribble it on a piece of paper. Ideas come on your way to the lavatory, as Helmut Krone said. It never leaves you and you’ve got to immerse yourself 100 per cent to succeed with the best. Maybe women who have children can’t commit… but saying that sounds very unfair because one of the people I respect and admire the most is Rosie Arnold who’s actually had two children. So to this day I don’t know. I really don’t know. I’ve never been able to give a proper answer to that.

LBB> What does the rest of 2014 hold for you?

AT> Paul Arden’s wife, Toni Arden, has asked me to do a book about him. It’s about all of the photography that he collected over his entire career. I’m right in the middle of doing that, which is a real honour and I’m excited about it.

I asked her for his diaries and I found a list of his favourite shots – they’re the only ones that are going to make it into the book. The problem is, I’m finding it so difficult to art direct it because I keep thinking ‘what would Paul say?’  I’m giving myself a harder time on this than I probably ever did on any press ads I’ve done. It’s very enjoyable. I can’t reveal the title of it but it’s a good one – there’s a great story behind it.

And I’m continuing to do courses with D&AD and myself with my master classes, which I thoroughly enjoy. I’ve got two new ones that I’m very excited about. And I’m also working with agencies in general so I’m very busy at the minute.

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LBB Editorial, Wed, 13 Aug 2014 16:55:48 GMT