Once upon a time, in an advertising universe far, far away, I worked with an art director by the name of Mark Oakley. (Mark, I hope you’ll forgive me for dragging you into this, but somehow, I don’t think you’ll mind.)
Mark was talented. That went without saying. But he was also something else. Here was a creative that was as possessed as anyone I’ve ever known. No, his head didn’t spin around. He didn’t projectile vomit all over his desk. To my knowledge, he was never known to levitate in client meetings. And yet, his obsession with execution—with craft—was a wonderment.
Long into the night, there would be Mark, hunched over a light box—and you either know what that is or you don’t—sifting through a pile of photographs. Good one. Good one. Bad one. Good one. Bad one. There was no middle ground. No creative purgatory. You were good or you were bad. In or out. End of discussion. It was like that with everything. You did it 1000 percent—or what was the point.
It was like that once. There was no content. There were words. Ideas ruled, and they ruled from the mountaintop. But craft? This was the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Big ideas were the plutonium core. Explosive and powerful and blinding. But big execution was the detonator. No detonator, no explosion. There are still a lot of big ideas in advertising. Real big. But the explosions aren’t so fierce anymore. A pop here. A boom there. Nothing so wonderful that it sears your retinas.
In some ways, we champions of the idea might have created a monster. Concepts are everything, we told ourselves. Who cares if you cut this scene or that scene? What does it matter if the talent’s wearing brown shoes or black shoes? Nobody appreciates detail. Not even other creatives. Embrace the idea, and all else can be forgiven.
But it can’t.
It’s easy to blame technology, to lay our disinterest in craft at the doorsteps of Facebook and Twitter and Instagram. Who can afford to dither over lighting and type and sound design when all that matters is likes and hits and clicks? It’s a new reality now. It’s faster. It’s leaner. And it doesn’t care two licks about attention to detail because detail means nothing if nobody sees it or is moved by it. And while technology might be a convenient scapegoat, if anyone’s responsible for the wounding of craft, it’s our entire culture.
In Fredrik Backman’s novel A Man Called Ove, a curmudgeonly and gnarly widower laments a world in which craft—sawing things and nailing things and shaping them into the stuff of art—seems as relevant to society as velociraptors. “These days, everything had to be computerized, as if that was how they built the Coliseum and the pyramids of Giza. They’d managed to build the Eiffel Tower in 1889, but now one couldn’t come up with the bloody drawings for a one-story house.”
Want to lay a wood floor? No worries. Home Depot makes it easy as 1-2-3! Engine trouble? Why get your hands dirty when a computer has diagnostics that can pinpoint the problem in a few seconds. We don’t want to get our hands dirty. We don’t want to get our minds dirty. We just want a new floor. We just want our cars to work. We don’t have the patience for craft anywhere else. Why would we in advertising?
Yet, how do we explain our love and admiration for beautifully crafted TV shows? Downton Abbey. Game of Thrones. The Crown. Westworld. It goes on and on. Yes, the stories are great. But the lighting, the costuming, the set designs—even the typography—all of it is so damn perfect. Never before has such attention been paid to producing the kind of detailed television that can be dismissed as a fantasy. The entire maker movement is built on craft. Musicians have never been more focused on craft as they are right now. There’s a school in Newport, Rhode Island, that teaches wooden boatbuilding using ancient tools—and I mean ancient. There’s a waiting list to enroll that’s seven years long.
Concept will always be king. But craft will always be the crown prince inches from the throne. Take away craft, and the king, though still mighty, starts to look a little undressed. A little blurry. A little smudged around the edges. Just ask Mark Oakley. ca