Having just finished my degree in fashion I was keen to earn some money. Scouring the vacancies I misunderstood an ad (brilliant start) for a junior art director, and posted off my CV. My group interview, which should have exposed my ignorance, made me appear to think “outside the box” (well, it was the 90s). Amazingly the job was mine and so began my adventures in "below the line" (everything but telly) advertising.
There was so much to learn. I found myself surrounded by advertising graduates with formulas for the perfect poster, old hands with tried and tested methods, Soho types with Evisu jeans and asymmetric backpacks full of confidence (well, it was the 90s). We were given our briefs, with target market, USP, core message and pages more. Then off we slunk to think up ideas encouraging people to buy, or buy into, things they might not have considered before.
I worked on many amazing accounts, in some fantastical mediums with some very driven people. We ran things up flagpoles, hit the ground running and touched base (well, it was the 90s). I designed toys for Robinsons, promotions for Evian, Cosmo Girl road shows and much much more. Working on such a wide range of products required looking at them from other peoples point of view. The ideas that really appealed to me were not necessarily the ones that made the cut, a heartbreaking lesson in the reality of being paid for your ideas, as opposed to wallowing in them as a student!
Fresh out of art college I was used to group crits and the ensuing mortification. This proved very handy as there’s a brutality to advertising, especially when it comes to presenting your ideas. No one is trying to spare your feelings in a progress meeting. Flaws are exposed and you get on with fixing them. Beyond repair? Then start over. More often than not this would result in a slightly wounded pride and a better idea. For any one brief the first stage ideas offered would span a huge range, we could fly off on flights of fancy, indeed it was encouraged, but the end result was always incredibly specific.
And through all of these wonderful and varied challenges it turns out what it really came down to was a great image and a handful of painstakingly selected words. Whether dropped through your letter box, on the side of a bus, the back of your cereal packet or in a magazine, the message was boiled down so its essence could be grasped and understood within moments. All the witty, clever bits that made you air punch when you thought of them, were usually sacrificed in the end, to make the communication clearer, purer and direct.
One child later and I am working in the very different and very lovely world of children’s books, again surprised and also delighted that I get to do this for my job. And as is so often the way, my past is informing my present. There can be no doubt that I apply elements of the disciplines I learned in advertising to the way I approach writing and illustrating a children’s book.
I am almost positive every writer and illustrator is well practised in the art of ripping up and starting again. Making sure their readership is at the forefront of their mind when writing and drawing. Tearfully letting go of favourite pages as they don’t quite fit the narrative. In the Venn diagram of making children's books and advertising there is a healthy middle ground of shared disciplines.
But I think the biggest influence advertising has had on my picture books is the sparsity. No excess words or imagery. I enjoy the challenge of trimming the story back, but hopefully stopping before it looks a bit bare! Making the words and illustrations pick up where the other left off (and leaving a little wiggle room for the reader’s imagination). Using a little to convey a lot.
But that’s just me. I marvel and drool at all the other wonderful styles of picture books. No doubt influenced by those author’s and illustrator’s past experiences. And that’s what so great and exciting about this industry, everybody is bringing their influences to the party ( well, it is the nine...oh), to create a diverse and incredible range of picture books.
I have been asked what my method is, a typical working day, how I develop ideas. In picture books as in advertising, I can honestly say I don’t really know. I yearn for a method but one refuses to establish itself. Whole stories can come in a flash, or sometimes take an age. But I think the most important lesson advertising has given me for this wonderful new career is that an idea always comes. Eventually.
Where Bear? by Sophy Henn is out now.