Where art meets advertising

The lines are blurring between art and advertising, and brands and agencies can capitalise on this.

Where art meets advertising
Where art meets advertising

How can agencies and clients benefit from working with art and artists?

Clients have, in fact, been benefiting from the work of artists in a variety of ways since a time when both the aristocracy and the church began to commission artists to adorn giant walls in castles and cathedrals with portraits of themselves involved in grand scenes of bravery or sanctitude. So, as far back as the Dark Ages, this rudimentary form of brand advertising and self-promotion created a framework for a beautifully symbiotic relationship between those with the need for a public image and with budgets to pay for one, and those that are blessed with the creative talent to substantiate it but with a need for hard cash.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of years of development later, we find ourselves in a time of previously unimaginable brand sophistication, when a significant percentage of the artist community has actually evolved with these changes into the more specifically client-useful guise of admen; but, at the root of it all, the relationship has not fundamentally changed in all that time.

Even the most committed (and perhaps least self-conscious) of us who have seen Morgan Spurlock's latest outing, The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, will have to admit the genuine lack of "creative purity" that is left in any aspect of our advertising and promotion work. Perhaps this is necessary, perhaps this is even a good thing - but what it does make us realise is that while, intellectually, the creative gap between advertising and fine art continues to grow, the door is still open for a lot of us to continue to have an idealistic desire to want to work with what we regard as "pure" artists, whose editorial/creative integrity has not been muddied by the needs and metrics of a paying client and is therefore somehow still intact.

There are a fairly large number of artists who would no doubt refuse out of principle to work with brands or "sell out" to the corporate dollar, but it's equally clear to us that there are just as many who would indeed be prepared to do such a dark and dreadful thing and actually bring an energy to a project that can transform it from fairly ordinary into something truly great.

So how have artists and brands been working together in recent years? An obvious place to start is the 30-year collaboration between Absolut Vodka's print advertising and artists such as Andy Warhol, Francesco Clemente, Louise Bourgeois and Keith Haring. Although Absolut and its agencies have, in fact, done little more than commission big-name artists to create static pieces of art to be repurposed as advertising, the inherent standout that the images create for culturally aware individuals versus the simplicity of the process is very clever.

When Damien Hirst recently agreed to a similar kind of collaboration with the skateboard brand Supreme (where he applied his artistic style to a series of skateboards), what is interesting is how much bigger the Hirst brand probably is than Supreme. Rather than the traditional model where a patron holds the majority of the power, this was a clever move from a niche brand to not only develop an exciting new product range with his work but, at the same time, very much hang on the coattails of a one-man creative PR machine.

Art's very own first lady, Maia Norman (and Hirst's partner), has turned the traditional patron/artist relationship on its head yet again in the creation of her fashion brand Mother of Pearl. Each season, she develops a capsule collection in collaboration with key artists (Jim Lambie in 2010; Fiona Banner in 2011) using signature pieces from their portfolio to work as the pattern and detail that inform the collection that feels equally at home in a gallery as on the catwalk.

Some brands have connected to art in other ways. The Italian fashion designer and founder of Max Mara, Achille Maramotti, always appreciated the importance of the links between fine art and fashion design, and dedicated a large part of his personal life to establishing one of the most significant European private art collections in recent history. Since his death in 2005, his entire collection is now available to be viewed by the public. In addition to this, The Max Mara Art Prize for Women is a biannual art prize for British-based female artists organised by Max Mara and the Whitechapel Gallery in London. The prize includes a six-month residency in Italy to realise an art project that may be exhibited and acquired by the Collezione Maramotti.

Another great example of a successful art/brand partnership is the lager brand Beck's, which has evolved from its position as a cult magazine advertiser through lead art exhibition drink sponsor to significant art prize patron and now multi-platform curator over the majority of the last decade. By 2008, the Beck's Futures art prize, in association with London's Institute of Contemporary Arts, had become one of the most valuable art prizes in the world, spawning winners such as Tonico Lemos Auad, with her pin drawings on to banana skins, and Rosalind Nashashibi, with her poignant films about everyday life on the West Bank.

The latest and possibly best incarnation yet from Beck's is its Green Box Project: a global fund established to inspire, celebrate and financially support independent talent in art, design, music and fashion. Over the next three years, Beck's will fund and showcase 1,000 projects by individuals with unique creative vision. The resulting art pieces will be experienced via augmented reality in green boxes located around the world and will be permanently displayed in the fund's virtual gallery.

By adding more technology to the mix and all the developments it provides to an artistic community hungry to push boundaries, there is even more room for collaboration. Until you see The Creators Project, you might reasonably deny the possibility of a successful marriage between the youth brand Vice and the blue-chip tech giant Intel - but this growing global network dedicated to the celebration of creativity, culture and technology is an amazing thing. At a time when digital technology has revolutionised distribution and democratised access, as well as reimagined the scope and scale with which an artist can create a vision and reach an audience, this project sets out to be a new kind of arts and culture channel for a new kind of world.

These are impressive, dynamic projects that will no doubt achieve a huge amount of popular interest and take on lives of their own over time, but for brands that do not have the confidence or budgets to set things up on such a scale, there are also ways of effecting the same impression on a more project-by-project basis. For a month this autumn, IBM created the breathtaking Think exhibit at the Lincoln Center in New York. Featuring a sparkling 123-foot LCD screen that literally drew people from the front of the building and through a tunnel into the bowels of the iconic arts venue, this was an exhibition of a different kind. Again at the meeting point between art, advertising, technology and interaction, the exhibition was in celebration of IBM's 100th anniversary and illustrated the possibilities that science and information technology offer to "make the world work better".

When the Frieze Art Fair came to Regent's Park in London for its annual jaunt and the international art scene flocked into town for a week of imitation events, exhibitions, gallery openings and auctions, I was invited to take part in a panel debate at The Hospital Club in Covent Garden exploring the ways in which art has inspired advertising and how advertising in turn inspires art.

Among other industry types I shared the stage with, there were the legendary British pop artist Sir Peter Blake (famous for his collage creations, but also his commercial work on album covers such as The Beatles'

Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band) and the contemporary pop artist Dave White (whose huge-scale graphic images of trainers and Americana inspired Nike to collaborate with him to create seven different paintings of the Nike Dunk using the original Nike "be true to your school" colours and, most recently, to design a limited-edition Air Jordan).

Both Blake and White enthusiastically agreed that, as long as the project and suggested output seemed to "feel right" and in some way interesting, they would both be delighted to collaborate with brands. They alluded to the fact that there may be some brands or verticals that certain artists may have specific issue with but, in the main, there was no rule as to what made a good or bad fit - if it works for both parties, then it just works.

So how should a brand or its agency go about finding the right talent with a complementary image, status and stylistic fit, where both parties are equally excited and inspired? Well, the answer is that there isn't a prescribed or guaranteed route to this. You probably need to put feelers out into the marketplace ahead of time to show that this is something you are interested in, and see if anyone bites. You need to pursue the conversation with a select number of creative talents and see, over time, who sticks. You have to have the confidence to leave certain things to chance (even when that makes your client and/or bosses nervous) on the belief that it will eventually come good in some crazy alchemic way. You need to act like you are starting a project that could develop a life of its own rather than already knowing 100 per cent of what it will become, when and why before you even begin.

Something that makes this process considerably easier for all of us now, though, is the changes that have taken place among creative professionals in the arts. Gone are the days when artists could be entirely defined by one very specific type of creative discipline (portrait artist, printmaker, landscape photographer).

In its place, we now have what The Future Laboratory named the "Slash/Slash Generation", where artists these days may describe themselves as an artist/film-maker/DJ/model etc. Does Tom Ford regard himself as a fashion designer or a movie director, or both? Does Nick Knight describe himself as a fashion photographer or an artist? Are Bompas and Parr chefs, food architects or PRs?

Well, you get the picture. But what this really means is extremely positive for clients or agencies that would like to collaborate with artists because, generally, the above range of skills also includes a sensible combination of paid-for commercial creative entities and purer not-necessarily-for-profit vanity projects. So not only are some of the biggest names in the industry now prepared to do this kind of work, in some instances, they are actually actively seeking it out.

Some of the most notable examples of this in recent years are ads shot for Gucci Flora or Telecom Italia by Chris Cunningham, the stunning "Parallel Lines" short film series created for Philips by RSA Films' finest directing talent (one of whom won the Grand Prix at Cannes 2010) as well as RSA's work with American Express on "My Live Story". Ridley Scott himself brought us Life In A Day in association with LG and YouTube. Karl Lagerfeld, who is also a gifted photographer and lifelong fan of Dom Perignon, created a series of print ads for the Champagne brand featuring his very own Chanel muse, Claudia Schiffer. In the series, Lagerfeld takes us into the decadent imaginary world of a dull Parisian old money couple, which was developed out of an idea for a five-minute film that he had made for Dom Perignon a few years before called Room Service.

I recently came across a video from Coca-Cola explaining how it will look to leverage the opportunities in the new media landscape and transform one-way storytelling into dynamic storytelling, hoping to add value and significance to people's lives. Jonathan Mildenhall, its vice-president, global advertising strategy and creative excellence, describes the challenge of content creation in an enlightening way, reminding us that "every contact point with a customer should tell an emotional story" and that a big part of the brand's 2012 content strategy will be to seek out and work more directly with creative talent.

If it is right - and large consumer- focused corporations such as Coca-Cola usually are - then this is a journey that clients, and therefore their agencies, of all shapes and sizes are most likely to have to go on, and soon. Art isn't advertising and advertising isn't really art. But there's a lot more art in advertising than ever before, and if we are going to evolve to succeed, we will need to learn to make it our friend.

Christopher Lockwood is the head of invention at Mindshare UK.