The Print Won’t Be Getting Better

MAS DUMBO classroom
Firstly, I have to state that I have nothing against print advertising. As an art director who attended design school I, feel I have as much appreciation for a brilliantly done print piece as anybody. 

Last week Jeff Goodby, one of our modern creative legends, bemoaned in a blog post while judging the International ANDY Awards, “The print work in the world today is horrible.” I wholeheartedly agree that today’s press advertising lacks the conceptual thinking, design sensibility and beautiful prose that iconic print campaigns have demonstrated in the past. In this day and age, that’s obvious to everyone in the industry. But more importantly, why reminisce when we have so much more to be excited about now and moving forward?

Over the past few months, I had the opportunity to teach a course in Digital Product Creation at Miami Ad School’s new DUMBO campus. Since this was my maiden voyage into teaching, I have to admit that I had no clue what I was doing. I didn’t attend portfolio school and therefore had no precedent upon which to base a teaching style, curriculum or critique structure, at least for an ad school. What made things even more complicated is the simple fact that digital products are still new and are for the most part, not included in most advertising agencies’ core competencies, including my own (yet).

Nevertheless, I plunged forth headfirst. In my first class I told them:

“The future of advertising agencies will be geared to create long-term, high-engagement utilities and experiences as opposed to inefficiently expensive and low engagement campaigns.”

And over the following weeks, I felt that statement was vindicated by the work I was seeing from the students. All of which means that I can get in line behind hundreds (ok, thousands) of others who have been preaching similar idioms and even building new agency models based on it over the past few years. However, the experience of working closely with future idea makers in our industry led to a few observations:

Schools are ahead of the curve versus their professional counterparts
The eagerness for the Miami Ad School curriculum to adopt digital product creation as a key skillset and capability is beating the professional agencies to the punch. The New York location of MAS launched this past fall with specialized digital and mobile offerings, demonstrating a strong commitment to technology and developing behaviors as much as campaigns. Hyper Island’s student program is also churning out a lot of exciting future-forward ideas.

This isn’t something that we’re committing to quickly enough as professionals. Admittedly, some excellent professional programs exist to bring agency veterans up to speed but how much has that changed the average day-to-day output? Mobile and digital platform briefs probably aren’t circulating around creatives desks nearly as much as they should be. It’s exciting to think what these young creatives are capable of in a short period of time but creating the right opportunities for that work to take place starts further up the food chain. Otherwise, they could be stuck spending the majority of their time cranking out rounds of banner ads.

Traditional advertising might even be withering away faster than we think
Of course that sounds a little bit ridiculous. Or naive. However, most of my students had little interest in pursuing a job at a strictly traditional agency – almost all intend to work for a digital or integrated shop that understands and produces digital ideas. What’s more, it’s become apparent that having great digital ideas like apps, products or platforms is not only an expectation as a component in the portfolio, but will lead to cooler jobs than another 3-part visual solve campaign for Crest will. Ultimately this process is leading to a talent drain that could affect the traditional market more drastically than expected.

Let’s challenge our clients laterally
One of the first questions many of the students asked me when presenting product concepts was, “What brand do you think this idea would be good for?” To which my first reaction was, “None. Develop it independently as IP or a startup.” The simple fact is that’s a more exciting place to be right now. While that may sound ominous for brand immersion into digital product development, I see it as an asymmetrical opportunity for the companies behind those brands. Potential growth from developing IP projects could easily exceed smaller increases in marketshare points gained in crowded CPG categories stemming from the introduction of a digital product.

A few individual agencies have been tilling in this territory, such as Area/Code which have developed proprietary games and games for clients like EA and ad agencies. Zynga’s acquisition of Area/Code makes their offerings and capabilities even more interesting. BBH’s ZAG unit is also designed to build new products and brands from the ground up. We’re not quite there yet, but this past year’s influx of app launches both for clients and as agency IP proves that the potential is there. But as we shift from neutral into low gear, it’s quite clear that the new wave of creatives are fully capable of going full speed.


Ultimately, I came to realize what millions of other teachers around the world already know – that through teaching, I learned more from my students than they probably did from me. And though that’s a timeless adage, it is no less powerful when it actually happens.

A big thanks to all my students and to Saneel Radia, who delivered an excellent guest presentation during one of our classes. I’m excited to teach again sometime soon. And meanwhile, it appears that to Jeff’s point, the print work will continue to get more horrible.

Article Info
Posted by: Steve Peck
Thinking About: Advertising / Digital / Interactive / Strategy / Technology
Location: New York City
Twitter: @stevenpeck
  1. Tim Geoghegan

    The issue isn’t so much lack of print or ‘traditional’ (whatever that is – keeps evolving).

    The issue is – as Hegarty himself on day so eloquently put it – the lack of magic.

    The focus right now is more on ‘creative problem solving’ instead of on ‘creative magic.’ Creative problem solving is great. But it’s the magic, the intangible ‘fuck, that was amazing and gave me chills’ that separates great work.

    And it’s that magic which some print ads or TV ads can still induce, that we should all be looking for no matter the medium. There will always be the latest twitter-enabled funny-face-generator-donate-now app.

    But it’s about making people feel something. That’s what brought me into this business. Creative problem solving is very easy vs. finding that creative magic.

    As for new students…what brought many of us into this business can now happen in many different roles. Want creative recognition? Want to solve business problems? Want to invent? Reach 100 million people? Make money? Work with artists and photographers and insanely talented people?

    Used to be, Advertising was one of the best ways to do that. To use your skills on behalf of clients. All of this can now be done with the help of technology, without an agency or a client other than yourself and your own product. So as a young creative person considering a new field – what would you do?

    • Steve Peck

      Hey Tim, some great thoughts here.

      I completely agree with your point about magic. And as you pointed out, that can happen no matter what the medium.

      The problem is, none of us have probably seen a banner ad lately (if ever) that had that magic. But that’s what a large majority of digital advertising has been reduced to. There were some cool microsites years ago that had magic, but the microsite is dead as well.

      One thing to remember is that the class I taught was digital product creation. So it was a bit different than creating a brand message and more about inventing new things. If it were a traditional or portfolio class, I would certainly have different things to write about.

      Fundamentally though, digital products become a bridge between story and utility and create a place for stories to happen. It’s a different way of thinking but a good idea is still ultimately a good idea.

      Either way, it’s my hope that we can create more exciting things as advertisers by expanding the boundaries of capabilities for our clients. All while making more magic.

      • Tim Geoghegan

        Digital is just another canvas or block of wood. It’s about the strength of the idea applied to the medium. The client-agency dynamic, and relationship altogether, is changing and has to change for any client to benefit from thinking that goes from making signs by doing, to making objects that communicate by doing.

  2. burke

    “But it’s about making people feel something. That’s what brought me into this business. Creative problem solving is very easy vs. finding that creative magic.”

    - totally!

  3. Mark Kenny

    I think it’s a very sad state if we’re only focussing on digital. With print still heavily dominating our lives; magazines, packaging, POS, supersites. All places we can’t easily put a screen, and I work with designers, creatives, accounts and clients who don’t know print at all, and complain it doesn’t work.

    Inside front cover, (the expensive bit) of Newsweek has a glossy front cover and recycled inside means your double page spread will be printed on two different types of paper and the colours will be different. THAT’S PRINT!

    It saddens me because that’s the way it always has been but focus is on learning digital, whatever that is.

    Don’t get me started on the CD inlay print not matching the CD….


    • Steve Peck

      Hey Mark, thanks for the comment.

      Not sure what you mean by ‘focusing only on digital’ though. The specific class that I taught was a digital class, so that was the whole purpose of it. They do take lots of other advertising portfolio classes intended to teach print and traditional basics, which are important things to learn. The MAS school in DUMBO is specifically geared towards digital and the students can choose to study there in their second year after their first year of portfolio classes in other locations.

      When everyone was doing either print ads, radio scripts or tv spots, there were a limited number of channels to create. Now there are tons more which leads to a natural diversification of talent and specialization, so I’d like to think there’s room for everybody.

      More importantly, teaching the class showed me that the students are very well versed in digital and are pushing concepts that frankly many agencies aren’t equipped to sell or produce yet. They have some really cool ideas that would be awesome to make and I see a lot of potential in them.

  4. Leon Fitzpatrick

    Nicely put Steve.

    This subject applies really well to the product/industrial design realm too. The interesting difference though is that many schools are behind the curve in preparing future industrial designers because the parameters are changing so drastically that the traditional methodologies can’t, in my opinion, fully prepare many students for the harsh realities of the industry. Now more than ever there is need for product designers to understand user interface & experience, technology, business, supply chain, and environmental & social concerns beyond just traditional manufacturing, styling and decorative processes that comprise many industrial design programs.

    Now that technology is ever-shrinking and converging (a phone now does what a whole slew of products used to), it’s hard to approach design the same way anymore. Granted this is looking at consumer electronics specifically, and our first-world consumer market even more specifically…but my point is the old way is dying and really needs an influx of new, younger thinking. But as is always the case, the student will get out what they put into a design degree.

    I’m glad to hear you got the chance to teach, the small amount of work I’ve done with students has been some of the best experience in design that I’ve had, and I can see that as a part of my future as well.

  5. Steve Peck

    Thanks Leon.

    I can definitely see how designing physical products can be a much more multifaceted challenge at the student level. With proprietary technologies and very sophisticated supply chain and environmental issues, there’s a whole lot that the student could be completely unaware of until he reaches the professional level.

    The thing with digital products is that the technology is pretty readily available and open sourced, so it doesn’t take much else to build something from scratch. It does certainly get more complicated when the digital products are designed to work with or augment a physical product (Nike+). That took a specialized team from three companies working closely together to achieve.

    While no industry is going to change overnight, I agree with you that young, fresh thinking is a good thing provided the students have a solid understanding of the fundaments of what it means to be a creative, in any industry.

  6. Caprice Yu

    Good points. Two things I’ve noticed:

    1. Having some digital component of a campaign is now the norm. It’s role has been reversed and it’s no longer the afterthought to a tv/print campaign. In fact, tv/print is now often the afterthought – mostly print. The fact that students are more interested in getting jobs in a ‘non traditional’ agency means that digital is now the ‘traditional’.

    2. As digital and digital products become the norm, there needs to be the same care and craft in it as there was in print. There were/are amazing craftsmen in print and tv. There tends to be an expectation that ‘digital’ should look a certain way – add the 2.0 juicy shine on it – so everything starts looking the same. We need to start designing digital products, platforms, even banners that doesn’t look like anything else already out there. It would be great if in the near future, digital work is treated as if it was art – like the way people regarded great print as art.

    • Steve Peck

      Hey Caprice, definitely agree with your point about craft. That’s something that we always need to hold ourselves to.

      The coolest thing about digital products is that they’re not even campaigns – they’re long term platforms and services that don’t ebb and flow with massive media buys and develop and grow with a user base over a longer period of time. They can serve as a massive foundation upon which integrated campaigns can be built.

      In my opinion, we’re going from a “digital” and “traditional” strategy to “product/platform” with “integrated media campaign” strategy. The product/platform involves systems and behavioral thinking and skillsets while the campaign layer is geared towards messaging and positioning.

      Ultimately, they can work together to build a brand or be invented and developed as separate entities altogether for clients.

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