Close-Up: Live Issue - How healthy is press ad creativity?

Is declining adspend in the print sector leading to falling creative standards, Claire Billings asks.

There's nothing like an awards ceremony to spark a debate about standards of creativity. As the winners bask in the glory, the doomsayers bemoan the lack of breakthrough work.

This year's Campaign Press Awards, held last week at the Truman Brewery, were no exception. "It wasn't a vintage year," Steve Henry, the creative director of the United Group and the chairman of the judges, says.

The event threw a spotlight on an industry that appears to be flat. While there was strong creative for the likes of Millets, Stella Artois and Tesco, from a business standpoint, the print medium is suffering a revenue recession.

The latest Advertising Association figures show spending on press advertising as a whole fell 3 per cent in 2005 to £6.8 million, with display falling 1.1 per cent to £3.7 million. National newspapers, which dropped 3 per cent, were more badly hit than their magazine bretheren, which climbed, but only by 1 per cent.

Maureen Duffy, the chief executive of the Newspaper Marketing Agency, argues that the figures looked worse for press advertising because of big drops by certain advertisers. "In 2005, categories such as financial and cars weren't delivering the same growth as the overall market. Because they're such big categories for the print medium, particularly newspapers, you're seeing the performance of that medium fall behind the market," she explains.

The question is: did this drop in spending put pressure on standards of creativity in press ads?

Ed Morris, the executive creative director at Lowe London, says: "I think the standard is good, but there's just not enough of it around. It's only coming from a small number of agencies."

This could be because pressure on client budgets means there are fewer specific press briefs around.

Graham Fink, the M&C Saatchi executive creative director and a judge for the 2006 Campaign Press Awards, says: "Everyone wants better deals. There are different ways of spending money these days. If it's coming off television, it could be spent on other media. When our clients ask for TV or press advertisements, we always offer other options."

Even though 13 agencies collected silvers at last week's event, the majority went to a handful of agencies. Miles Calcraft Briginshaw Duffy took three silvers and two golds for Millets; Lowe London won three silvers for its Tesco and Stella Artois campaigns, and Bartle Bogle Hegarty triumphed in four categories for its work for Levi's, Audi and Boddingtons. This concentration of awards means questions are inevitably raised about the depth of talent in the craft.

Mark Reddy, the executive head of art at BBH, thinks that one factor could be the way creative departments are structured. "Teams aren't necessarily art directors and copywriters any more. Individuals don't like to call themselves an art director or a writer. They're creatives. And most of them are not that good at writing and not that good at art directing."

Increasingly, creatives are rewarded financially based on the awards they win. With the growth in importance of press at the Cannes Lions, and in the increasing internationalism of the category at D&AD, teams are under pressure to produce copy-light ads that appeal to international juries.

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AWARD-WINNER - Mark Reddy, executive head of art, Bartle Bogle Hegarty

"Because television is deemed more glamorous, teams often don't like to engage with print because it's much harder work. They have to be the director.

"It's also getting increasingly hard because of the logistics of trying to do a campaign for a Sony Ericsson or Vodafone - how many clients are now global clients?

"TV as a medium can deliver a stronger, simpler, emotional message more easily, but print suffers from too many influences.

"Print is about aesthetics. But often the careful creation of a piece of work can be wrecked by the heavy-handedness of too many people."

PUBLISHER - Nicholas Coleridge, chief executive, Conde Nast

"Advertising has been exceptionally strong at the top end of the magazine market. 2005 saw the highest volumes in Conde Nast's history, across the whole portfolio from Vogue to GQ, and the first half of 2006 has seen a further 4 per cent volume rise, so we have experienced no decline.

"One reason for this is that a lot of our ads come from Milan, Paris and New York, where much of the best fashion and cosmetics creative work originates. Having said that, we are also seeing strong creative fashion work from UK companies such as Burberry and Top Shop. There is still a lot of exciting creative work around, and clients who choose to target it at rich and aspirational readers."

NEWSPAPER MARKETER - Marc Sands, marketing director, Guardian Newspapers

"In the past two or three years, the quality newspaper market has responded positively to what people want and what newspapers can do, from format changes to offering different shapes and sizes of ads and more colour.

"Agencies do one ad and farm it out to all the newspapers, but they could take a different view. When we carried a copy of Supersize Me, McDonald's took an ad on the back page, which only appeared in The Guardian. It was a responsive decision. It took advantage of the immediacy of the national press and everyone saw it.

"The problem is one of confidence across the industry, which is under attack, largely from the internet."

AWARDS JUDGE - Graham Fink, executive creative director, M&C Saatchi

"A lot of the work that won the other night was classic print advertising. The Millets, Stella Artois and Marmite work could have been done five or ten years ago. It's classic stuff.

"One issue, though, is that there's very little time to develop the craft. You get more time for a TV campaign.

"Another is that clients often see an early version of the ad made up from photo library pictures and decide to go with that rather than wait until the actual ad's been shot.

"In general, it's in a healthy state. Every year it gets harder to come up with original stuff and get ideas through, but if your clients trust you, they'll let you do your thing."