Nick Bell has just taken up his role as president of the Design & Art Direction (D&AD) organization – responsible for the world-famous Yellow Pencil awards. In his first-ever interview, Nick outlines his thoughts and plans for the creative industry.

Digit: In what way has the past 12 months been challenging for the industry, and in what way has the industry risen to those challenges?

Nick: The most obvious challenge for the industry has been the economy. Any London cabbie will tell you advertising is the first thing to go when the purse strings tighten. The same, I’m sure, is true of design. Where budgets haven’t been cut altogether, the creative industry has had to produce more work in less time and for less money. The inevitable product of this has been less stand-out, ground-breaking work. I’m not sure there’s much evidence the industry has risen to these challenges.

Abbott Mead Vickers’ success in encouraging its clients to spend through the recession of the late 80s/early 90s is an example of where the industry may have missed an opportunity.

Digit: As president of D&AD, what do you feel are the core issues and challenges facing the creative industry over the next 12 months?

Nick: The common wisdom is that 2004 should see us start to come out the other side of Sir Martin Sorrell’s bath-shaped economy. I believe, though, that we will continue to wear some of the legacies, the legacies I’ve talked about in answer to your first question.

I think, consistent with this year’s D&AD agenda, that the industry has to develop its dialogue with its clients to persuade them that they’re not necessarily getting the best out of us.

Digit: What are the ways designers can better work with clients, and how do we get clients to work better with designers?

Nick: Relationship is the first thing. If the first time a client meets a creative, whether a designer or otherwise, is at the creative presentation, how can he or she be expected to trust that creatives’ appreciation and grasp of the problem at hand, let alone their solution? My experience tells me better solutions are reached when creatives are involved from the beginning of the process. As a result, I would also like to see clients buy solutions with less pre-conceived notions of what they would like and more willingness to embrace the new.

Digit: You’re currently executive creative director at J Walter Thompson. What does that role entail on a day-to-day basis?

Nick: My day is non-stop meetings. Reviewing work with creative teams, selecting, giving guidance, discussing strategic approaches and, of course, presenting to clients.
The clients we work with at JWT are a mix of the big, multi-national brands liked Diageo’s Smirnoff, Unilever’s Persil, Nestlé Rowntree’s Kit Kat, Yorkie and Polo, Vodafone, Shell International and smaller scale local clients such as Golden Wonder and the RNIB.

Digit: What is the most rewarding, and challenging, part of your role as executive creative director?

Nick: Many aspects of my job are rewarding but the thrill of a young creative team walking in with an outstanding idea that could transform a client’s business and that young team’s careers takes some beating.

The most challenging, without a doubt, is convincing a client to buy the idea that could transform his or her business.

Digit: What have been some of the more memorable moments and milestones in your career, and what have you learnt as a creative director during that time?

Nick: Getting a job working for David Abbott and Richard Foster at Abbott Mead Vickers; the first ad my partner, Greg Martin, and I got into D&AD in 1987; our first awards, the Grand Prix at Cannes in 1997 for Mercedes Skid marks at Leo Burnett; becoming creative director at Leo Burnett and creative directing the work that substantially contributed to the success of brands like McDonald’s, Heinz, John West and Daz; becoming creative director of J Walter Thompson and being awarded two D&AD Silver awards and the D&AD presidency by my peers.

I’ve learnt a lot as a creative director but two things stand out. One is that if you can’t get as much satisfaction from the success of your department’s work as you do
from your own, you’re not cut out to be a creative director.

The other is to always have the courage of your convictions; to present the work you believe in whatever the pressures. Agencies and client organizations are full of people who want to talk you out of it and to compromise. The works I’m most proud of have been the work I produced with Greg Martin at Abbott Mead Vickers for IKEA, Mercedes Skid marks and a ten-second retail campaign for McDonald’s with my partner Mark Tutssel at Leo Burnett. As a creative director, it would have to be John West Bear written by Paul Silburn and the Any Food Tastes Supreme With Heinz Salad Cream print campaign.

Digit: Have you seen creativity mature and evolve during this time – have agencies and creatives evolved in dealing with clients or understanding branding interfaces with consumers?

Nick: I’ve seen creativity evolve but I wouldn’t necessarily say mature. Press ads are now posters. TV advertising has become more visual. Good dialogue is rarer.
I think agencies have had to evolve, though I think in an increasingly competitive environment and with so many agencies reporting to holding companies, the pressure of retaining business has led agencies to be more fearful and this in many ways has led to a master-slave relationship.

This can’t be healthy. Fear is not the right environment in which to produce effective creativity. On a more positive note, I think the new breed of creatives, more than ever, think solutions first and media second, meaning they are looking at the broader opportunity for the consumer to interface with the brand.

Digit: D&AD is also about nurturing creative talent – do you think we as an industry are as successful as we could be in this, and how would you like to see new designers educated and supported?

Nick: I don’t think the industry is as smart or as successful as it could be in this respect. The placement system has hardly changed in the 20 years I’ve been in the business.

With activities like New Blood, The Clinic and Bloodbank, however, D&AD’s work in this area is truly impressive. D&AD can’t actually give young creatives jobs, but it comes pretty close.

Digit: What advice would you give someone who wants to grow into the role of a creative director, dealing with the kind of creative you produce?

To truly want to make a difference, to able to take as much satisfaction from the achievements of your colleagues as you do from your own and to be prepared to work bloody hard.

Digit: What kinds of creative work do you find inspiration from, and why?

Nick: Anything with a great idea at its heart.

Digit: Commercial output seems to have a reputation for ‘dumbing down’. Is this true?

Nick: It think it is true. Why? Because those responsible for buying creativity very often have had no formal training and, concerned primarily with not making mistakes, tend
to be risk averse and to play safe. I actually say this not critically, but with some sympathy.

Digit: Finally, why should readers get involved with organizations such as D&AD?

Nick: The ‘should’ depends on who you are and what your need is but I have been very impressed with and am proud to be associated with an organization that carries out such high standard work in the three key areas of excellence, education and enterprise, the evidence of which will be very clear over the three weeks of the first-ever D&AD Congress this year.

D&AD congress takes place at Billingsgate, London, between May and July 2004.