Adland's Digital Revolution: The journey of an ad

campaignlive.co.uk, Friday, 28 October 2005 12:00AM

Moving an ad between the agency, the client and the media owner can cause problems at every stage. Now emerging, new digital management systems impose order on the whole process, by maintaining a centralised databank. Richard Dean investigates.

They say nostalgia ain't what it use to be. But that doesn't seem to stop some old hands wistfully recalling a golden age of camera-ready artwork and film. Instead of computer-esque promises of WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get), these time-honoured advertising materials were decidedly WYSIWYAG - what you see is what you've already got.

Even TV ads resided on what Kodak once memorably described as an "eyeball-readable" medium - and the question of transporting either print or audio-visual materials to the appropriate media outlet was simply a matter of, well, transport.

But this wouldn't be the first time that rosy recollections obscure basic shortcomings. For one thing, there's the cost and uncertainty of courier delivery, and the expense of tape duplication for approvals and the like along the way. Then there's the palaver of innumerable telephone confirmations, the tendency for related packages to go missing, uncertainty over who did or didn't do what and when, yet more couriers - and on a bad day, aspirins all round.

It's hardly surprising then that more and more agencies are keen to make that journey digital. After all, given that most content is either entirely or at least post-produced digitally these days, anybody can see that sending it as a file is quicker and cheaper than faffing around with copies and couriers. It's also more complete, as the mess of data on flaky Post-It notes or cassette sleeve scribble can be replaced by metadata. This a fancy word for legible typed notes and related files accompanying the content, rather like the attachments sent with an e-mail. Indeed, that's just what some companies are doing - e-mailing it.

The problem is that merely e-mailing low-resolution approvals or even the final master ignores the full potential of "going digital". Sure, individual legs of the journey are completed more efficiently. But you're still stuck with the same basic mode - a daisy chain of communication that relies on people remembering things at each stage, with no access to a central database, limited accountability and no proper system of collaboration before, during or after production.

The key word here is "system", one whose acronym is all too often uttered by those who don't have it - digital asset management. DAM is nothing new on the editorial side, where most of the major players in the graphics or editing equipment field have either developed or bought the expertise to catalogue content, or support third-party plug-ins to do the job.

But advertising calls for more collaboration or approval across a broader range of media outlets with differing requirements. Together Quickcut and Adstream claim to have created the only such "soup-to-nuts" systems, specifically tailored to the ad industry.

BROADCAST

Sending television ads electronically goes all the way back to the old analogue duopoly days when all the commercials were on ITV.

Spots were beamed across landlines from facilities houses to a central playout centre, recorded on to tape and manually inserted into vast robotic library-management systems.

Obviously, the links had to be in real time to allow recording and, given that signal compression as we know it was unheard of, needed shedloads of bandwidth. They were hideously expensive, even before the facilities house had been paid. Not only that, but the transaction was final. Creative collaboration or remote approvals were never part of the deal.

Today, agencies can send material directly from the desktop to as many people in the loop as they want, before finally pinging the master off to any number of broadcasters, to and from anywhere with an internet connection.

So, three cheers for the worldwide web. But without a proper system in place, you're more likely to end up with a web of confusion.

One of the issues is the thing that makes all this digital stuff work in the first place, compression. In this, as in so many other areas, the computer and video fraternity have demonstrated an undying passion for standards - and apparently, the more the better.

This means material can get snarled up between two incompatible formats.

While it is now possible to convert from one to another - or "transcode" in jargon - this has to be done carefully, or quality is lost at each stage.

A further complication is that the type of compression used for watching on a normal broadband link makes the material difficult to edit. This may not matter for rubber-stamp approvals but, for anything more creative, you'll need the descriptive skills of a radio sports commentator to pinpoint the changes required over the phone, tormented by memories of just how nice the coffee would have been within the welcoming bosom of the facilities house.

One option is to exchange fatter, editable files that take longer to download than to play. But it's not just the extra delay that may irk as the deadline looms. You then have to make sure that you play and work on the right version from a desktop increasingly cluttered by different downloads, identified by ever more inscrutable file names such as "Acme Ltd - final", "final - graphics", "final - use this one", "final - final" and so on until the nurse arrives with a syringe.

The answer is to use a system that encompasses the entire commercial life cycle from pre-production and delivery to storage. Not only can material move seamlessly between each stage - always a worry when the ad's travel arrangements are improvised - but all material resides on a central store.

This eliminates fears of whether you are using the latest version.

On the Adstream system, it all begins with what the company calls the Project Bank, where users can access all related material from a single location on the web - from animatics and scripts to estimates and reference material - way before a camera has rolled.

After production, the footage is ingested (input) on to the system from the post-house or agency. As the project progresses, all still images, audio and video previews are kept together - which can't be guaranteed with the attachments accompanying a simple (or, in reality, complicated) series of e-mails.

All material is subjected to a mixture of automated and visual quality checks with a receipt confirming acceptance, and those expecting to make changes rather than merely review material are given a higher bandwidth link.

Last year, Adstream, which has become the de facto standard across all broadcasters in its native Australia, won a four-year contract to develop a digital approvals system for the Broadcast Advertising Clearance Centre.

This year saw the implementation of the final phase, where commercials can be transferred tapelessly to the BACC and subsequently tracked by agencies and broadcasters alike. There's also a centralised ad order database, unsurprisingly called AdCentral.

The final ad is delivered to the media outlet via third-party fibre or satellite networks running roughly 50 times faster than broadband - it takes about three minutes to send an average 30-second broadcast master over Sohonet, for instance - and at least one agency has shown that all of this can all be done on a brace of low-cost Apple Mac G5 workstations running Adobe After Effects.

Finally, the broadcast-quality ads are stored in a secure digital library called AdBank, along with all the supporting rushes, scripts and other documentation - and indeed other ads for radio, print, internet or even in-store media. The system automatically creates lower-resolution formats for previewing ads online.

When it comes to radio ads, with most stations now available on digital radio or broadband internet, audio quality needs to be higher than what was once acceptable for FM and AM, calling into question older distribution technologies such as streamed ISDN. File transfer not only meets quality standards, but can be dragged and dropped straight into the playout system.

Even the text fields are automatically filled in from associated metadata.

One possibly unexpected consequence of speeding up all the logistical hurdles between advertiser and media is the emergence of what amounts to on-air copy testing. Companies trading electronically find out quicker than most what effect their commercial has had on viewers. Previously such data was carefully logged in preparation for the next campaign.

PRINT

It's fair to say that the digital bandwagon was resisted when it first started rolling. Most publishers felt that all of the benefits accrued to the advertiser, while they were left to pick up the pieces, checking and correcting the multitude of applications and format variations coming their way - a far cry from the eyeball-ready artwork of yore. Some stuff was even coming in on an Excel spreadsheet or PowerPoint. On average, publishers were finding that up to a third of the files sent ad hoc had to be corrected.

Soon the realisation dawned that digital was going to happen anyway, but that something had to be done about this problem of different formats, which can have a particularly devastating effect on colour work. UK publishers didn't want to set up a new repro division just to save money for advertisers.

So they designated specific repro houses to accept and massage digital copy on their behalf, in a "gatekeeper scenario".

Not only had a "closed shop" been created, as some argued, but the full benefits of digital workflow were being squandered.

The Guardian inflicted a slow puncture in 2000 when it decided to accept mono digital ads directly, and colour in 2001, on the strict understanding that they came through the Quickcut system. But it was only when the mighty News International went the same way last April that the gatekeeper balloon finally burst.

The Quickcut operations director, Mike Parmenter, cheerfully dismisses taunts that he's in charge of what sounds like a speedy barbershop, although, given that the company's raison d'etre is pristine appearance in a timely fashion, the analogy may have some mileage in it after all.

It all starts with the final artwork being imported into a plug-in for Adobe InDesign or QuarkXPress. Once the destination title and mono/colour status has been specified, an Adobe Acrobat PDF file is created with Adobe Distiller. Incidentally, the latest version of Quickcut now includes its own Distiller, after the company became one of the few to be granted a licence by Adobe.

There's nothing to stop an agency merely sending a PDF in the hope that it will work and, to be fair, steps are being taken to formalise PDF standards.

But the key difference with the full Quickcut monty is its unique process of validation.

What impressed both The Guardian, News International and now more than 8,500 newspapers and magazines worldwide is that up to 290 checks are made on the digital artwork against a database of media specifications.

This can include anything from the schoolboy howler of computer-style RGB instead of print-ready CMYK pictures, to media-specific cut margins, page bleed requirements, copy dimensions and myriad other parameters that regularly give publishers - and ultimately advertisers - grief. Anybody still smarting from the experience of default Courier type defacing their ad may draw comfort from the fact that it alerts for all the necessary fonts to be embedded too.

Any detail that isn't quite right is flagged up either as a warning or a fault. Agencies can override a warning, but Quickcut simply refuses to send anything with a fault. So why bother with warnings? The answer is accountability. If it emerges that a problem was caused by a warned discrepancy, lessons can be learned without the usual round of incandescent telephone squabbling and subsequent delays, as the audit trail is transparent.

Equally, an all-clear at the agency end means there must be a problem at the publishing house, clarifying the case for a repeat or recompense.

After the green light has been given for despatch, agencies are able to track the journey of the ad with a password login, culminating in a receipt signifying full acceptance by the publisher in all respects.

Incidentally, security is claimed to be equal to the standards of (unhacked) internet banks.

The software continues to evolve, and Quickcut is trialling a "Forward Advice System" with The Irish Times that validates size and insertion date as well as all the mechanicals.

In fact, Quickcut already extends way beyond the media advertising loop and into the darkest recesses of the printing industry, with allied applications for both Mac and Windows workstation platforms.

So what about that seemingly indispensably hand-delivered pre-publication package, the proof? Customers spend a small - and sometimes large - fortune producing artwork. Given that it's almost all prepared, approved, corrected and rendered on screen, surely the least they can expect is a paper proof to confirm that it will look right on the page?

The workhorse of colour proofing is of course the Cromalin. Trying to give the thumbs-up to the last stage before the point of no return on a computer screen sounds precarious at best, they reason.

After all, the different desktop screens or flat panel monitors used by each person in the loop are unlikely to show precisely the same thing.

The answer is to make sure every screen is calibrated to produce the same standard. Actually, this so-called "soft-proofing" gives a more truthful rendition of the final print, especially for newspaper ads.

While the Cromalin process is designed to give the best possible visual output from a digital file, in reality this is something the vast majority of newsprint can't deliver. A calibrated system on the other hand can take things such as background hue and ink absorption into account in a way that a Cromalin never does. So, in fact, the on-screen image turns out to be more WYSIWYG than the feverishly opened package from the courier.

This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk

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