Newspaper Advertising - The Creative Potential: The art of the page

The dynamism and sensitivity of newspaper design should inspire advertising creatives to start producing ads that are worthy of appearing in such a respected medium, Mark Reddy argues.

Where have all the good newspaper ads gone? I'm fed up with retail ugliness and damn awkward spaces jostling uncomfortably in a medium that is so disciplined. Most papers have greater sensibility when it comes to understanding their readers, maintaining a particularly high standard of design and communicating with order and interest.

Newsprint is the mother of all media. One of the earliest newspapers was the Roman Acta Diurna, established 2000 years ago by Julius Caesar, someone who obviously understood the power and importance of disseminating news in an accurate, decisive and persuasive manner.

The traditions of newspaper design probably began with the hand-written newsletters circulated between European merchants in the 15th century.

In England, the first use of illustration with type on the front page was a rather sombre engraving of Nelson's coffin in The Times in 1806.

Newspapers have always been the most trusted method of delivering in-depth information and opinion. The statistics speak for themselves. Some 36 million people read a national newspaper every week in the UK.

National newspapers are read by eight out of ten adults every week. And I mean read - for 25 minutes at a sitting on average.

In a world where advertisers fight tooth and nail in an overcrowded and fragmenting market, newspapers offer a massively loyal, precise and consistent readership. A readership predisposed to reading what's in front of them, providing it's worth reading.

Wasn't it David Ogilvy who said: "The more you tell, the more you sell." To get someone to read your ad it has to be better written and art directed than anything else in the paper.

Europe has the best designed newspapers by far, papers that earn most of their revenue from selling themselves to readers, unlike their North American counterparts, which earn most of their revenue from selling advertising to other companies.

In recent history, the broadsheets have reinvigorated the market by tackling the traditional format and producing a variety of more compact papers, culminating with the triumphant arrival of The Guardian's Berliner, a novel successor to David Hillman's startling use of Helvetica and his iconic masthead of 1988.

This change of direction embraces a more eclectic style that is quieter, denser and more magazine-like, coupled with a more dynamic use of imagery reminiscent of the arrival of the first supplement in The Sunday Times.

So why have we advertisers neglected press ad design while the papers are having so much fun?

If you delved into advertising's archives you would find endless examples of the perfect confluence of the skill of the art director and the writer.

From classic Volkswagen ads of the 60s to Avis and Hertz, Mobil, RSPCA, 3i,Timberland, Amnesty International, Nationwide Anglia, Intercity, The Guardian and many more.

Over the past couple of years I have tried twice to bring the medium up to date with ads for the Guardian and, more recently, American Airlines.

The Guardian print campaign was born out of one word, "fresh". It seemed the ideal opportunity to use whole pages in diverse and dramatic ways.

The look was anchored by devising a simple logo stamp, derived from a supermarket label, to give consistency. The typeface was The Guardian's own, set in the style of its headlines.

Each ad was different from the last and used the full force and invention of photography, illustration, typography, writing and art direction. Every writer and art director could bring their own slant to the work. This style reflected The Guardian's eclectic, intelligent and diverse point of view.

This month we launched a mammoth brand campaign in the broadsheets for American Airlines. The intention was to dominate the medium by creating an authentic American look and feel. Typographically, the ads hark back to famous print campaigns of the 60s and, more recently, the abundance of riches that issued from Leagas Delaney in the 80s and early 90s. However, the strong headlines are rendered in an asymmetric, sculptural form. There is a dramatic use of white space in a dense medium, together with blocks of copy resembling skyscrapers. The photos by Nick Meek are sparse, pale and completely up to date while evoking the spirit of classic US road movies.

I adore the scale and immediacy of newspapers. I hope that not too many other people will use them because my clients will reap the benefit of having a dominant voice in an under-used and under-valued medium.

Perhaps our reason for turning our backs on the strengths of the medium is simply that international campaigns and awards favour the narrative image, encapsulating the idea with a three-word, easily translatable sign-off. Glory is seen to be gained with a film rather than a graphic icon.

This trend has undoubtedly created a culture of "concept creators", who are neither art directors nor writers. With film you have a director to maintain the integrity of the vision. With print there is nowhere to hide.

Most writers cannot construct a reasoned, enticing argument. Most art directors have not cultivated a sufficiently tuned set of skills to make their ad a companion to the environment in which it exists; a medium predisposed to delivering a well-argued, in-depth communication that makes an impact.

Advertising has always been rather wary of embracing aesthetics, preferring to ignore the subconscious desire for a sense of rightness in favour of blunt coercion and a bigger logo.

It has always been difficult to persuade good designers to embrace a role in advertising. We should never forget to use the full armoury of tools at our disposal to produce clear, insightful, appropriate creative solutions that will win over readers in the way newspapers have always done.

- Mark Reddy is the head of art at McCann Erickson.