Yesterday at the San Francisco International Film Festival I saw a terrific new documentary: Art & Copy, about the people behind some of the most influential and inventive advertising campaigns of the last half century. The film, which was commissioned the ad-industry nonprofit One Club, focuses on living members of the Creative Hall of Fame Advertising Hall of Fame, including the profane and combative George Lois, who created many groundbreaking Esquire covers as well as the equally groundbreaking "I Want My MTV" campaign; Phyllis K. Robinson, the copywriter who helped found Doyle Dane Bernbach and who conceived and wrote the "It Lets Me Be Me" campaign for Clairol; and Hal Riney, the creator and voice actor behind campaigns for Perrier, Saturn, Crocker Bank ("We've Only Just Begun" was written expressly for that campaign), and—most notoriously—the "Morning in America" campaign for Ronald Reagan. Riney was interviewed on camera before his death last year.
Among the earliest work shown are the legendary Volkswagen ads created by Doyle Dane Bernbach in an era when the VW was widely regarded as "Hitler's car." It's not only the finished ads that are revolutionary; it's also the process that created them. DDB was, amazingly, the first agency in which copywriters and graphic designers worked in teams; previously, advertising was driven by copy, which was written first (I admit I'm sorry I never experienced this primacy of the word) and then shipped upstairs or downstairs to the art department, which laid it out and added pictures. "Creatives," as we're now called, weren't considered true "advertising men": that title went to the account executives—the suits.
The film makes a compelling case that the center of creative gravity has shifted in the last couple of decades from New York City to the West Coast. Besides Riney, whose agency lives on in San Francisco under the corporate aegis of European ad giant Publicis, the Left Coasters in the film include San Franciscans Rich Silverstein and Jeff Goodby, whose "Got Milk?" campaign transformed the milk industry and who memorably associated amphibians with beer; Lee Clow, whose L.A. agency, TBWAChiatDay, has been making wildly creative ads for Apple for a quarter-century; and Dan Wieden and Dave Kennedy of Wieden + Kennedy in Portland, the team that came up with "Just Do It" for Nike as well as memorable work for Coca-Cola and other clients.
Art & Copy would be enjoyable and worthwhile even if it consisted only of interviews and portfolio pieces, but it goes further. Director Pray puts advertising in a larger context, throwing compelling statistics onto the screen (global spending on advertising is expected to reach $544 billion by 2010) and folding in a couple of fascinating side stories. One is about a "sign rotator," a fourth-generation billboard worker whom we see at his vertigo-inducing labor. The other story covers the global satellite phenomenon, which has transformed how, and how often, the world sees TV ads.
The best part of seeing movies at a film festival is often the Q&A with the director afterward. The post-screening session with Doug Pray did not disappoint. I was glad someone asked about the satellite launch we see, in snippets, from preparation through execution. Pray told us he'd wanted from the outset to film a launch, but was turned down by U.S. companies and agencies. He finally found a willing participant in, of all places, French Guyana. His crew flew down there to shoot, and made an astonishing discovery: just a short distance from the launch pad was a series of prehistoric petroglyphs. Communication then: communication now. The petroglyphs found their way into the film, too.
Immediately after the screening I attended a panel session with Silverstein, Goodby, and Wieden, who talked about their lives in advertising and screened more ads, some familiar, some new. One of them—this piece for a nonprofit I'd never heard of, The Girl Effect—consists only of words against blank backgrounds. It is nothing short of thrilling.
Volkswagen "Lemon" ad from here, where you can also read the story behind the campaign.