CLOSE-UP: LIVE ISSUE - POSTER ADVERTISING. Are UK posters as good as we believe? Do agencies comprehend the basic rules of effective poster ads?

The poster is every creative director's secret favourite medium. While TV campaigns may attract plaudits, many see the poster as the ultimate test of an agency's creative abilities.

A good poster, so they say, communicates a brand message from a distance in a matter of seconds. The simplicity of Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R's "hippos" for Land Rover secured the execution numerous awards at last Wednesday's Campaign Poster Awards.

But Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO's work for The Economist is perhaps the most famous example of the poster done well. It cleaned up last Wednesday, just as it has been doing at poster awards for the past 16 years.

What does The Economist's dominance of poster advertising say about the medium's creative standards? Why does it keep winning? Is it because the work is so good or because everything else is so bad?

Bil Bungay, the deputy creative director at TBWA/London and a member of this year's poster jury, says: "My only gripe with awarding stuff like that year in year out is that there's no concept created. It's a lot easier to write an ad for a campaign that exists than it is to write a campaign from scratch. I think concept creators should win an award at the same time, or at least be acknowledged.

"It becomes luck of the draw. Suppose you are a creative who has just joined a new agency and you're desperately trying to establish yourself.

Then, what should land on your desk but an Economist brief. Your first reaction would be to say: 'Yey! I've got an award.' But I don't have a problem with The Economist winning awards, because they are great campaigns. Even the bad ones are good and I thank God they're there because they raise the standard."

The Economist was not the only big winner at this year's poster awards.

Guinness and Land Rover also performed well, winning the best campaign and the best individual poster respectively, as well as a host of other awards and nominations. The standard of these three campaigns is generally accepted as high.

However, according to Adrian Holmes, the chief creative officer at Lowe Worldwide, the gulf between the best of the industry and the rest of the industry is alarmingly wide.

"The cream of the crop gives a misleading impression of the health of the industry," Holmes says. "If you leaf through the awards booklet you would think that we're doing some great posters in this country, but if you walk down the high street the impression is somewhat different."

Holmes drew the same conclusion when he chaired the judging panel for the 2001 awards. Twelve months later, and he feels there are no grounds for a renewed sense of optimism.

He says: "There are not many posters which make you say 'that's a really striking bit of design' or 'what a marvellous single image that is'. I find a lot of posters are too fiddly to look at. The clients are not understanding the medium and are asking for too many things to be put into a poster.

"I was always taught that advertising was like throwing tennis balls. If you throw one then people will catch it. If you throw five then their arms will flail around in the air and they'll drop the whole lot. There are a lot of posters out there that are trying to throw a lot of tennis balls at once."

For Holmes, the problem stems from a lack of respect given to the poster as a medium in its own right. He feels it is seen instead as an afterthought to a TV or press campaign.

Bartle Bogle Hegarty's creative director, Russell Ramsay, agrees. Like Bungay, Ramsay was a member of this year's judging panel. He was unimpressed by the standard of this year's submissions, so much so that he accuses clients and agencies of "paying lip service to the principles of good poster design".

He adds: "I waded through hundreds of entries and most were too complicated. A lot of them weren't even posters - they were press ads on billboards. They had too much information on them, parts of them were too small and they were not very well branded. A lot of posters feature ideas that are more suitable to print. Either that, or they are merely extensions of TV campaigns. You might want to say the same thing as your TV campaign, but if you're creating a poster you've got to say it in a different way."

But his criticism does not ring true with tube and train posters. Of the 339,500 poster sites situated in the UK, 162,000 of them are located in either trains or train stations, according to figures from the Outdoor Advertising Association. Cross-track advertising is the exception to the "must-communicate-within-seconds" rule. The bored traveller is a captive audience and therefore receptive to a more complex creative approach to poster production.

Then there's the giant poster to consider. This new advertising phenomena seems to be finding its feet. Work by Adidas and ITV, as well as the "under construction" execution for Five's Michael Jackson's Face documentary, have shown advertisers the potential of the super-sized medium.

All of which goes to show just how complicated and difficult creating a successful poster campaign can be. Which makes the success of The Economist all the more remarkable. After 16 years, the partnership between The Economist and AMV is still winning awards. And unless the rest of the industry starts to respect to the poster as an individual medium, then this partnership is likely to win a few more in the future.

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