In the art world, opinion is divided on the greatest representation of Hell. Some favour The Last Judgement by Renaissance artist Fra Angelico, c. 1431. Others give the nod to Hell by Hieronymus Bosch, dated sometime between 1490 and 1510. Personally, I’m inclined to go for pretty much anything from photographer David Stewart’s Paid Content, 2016 – 2018, currently on view at the Wren London gallery.
If you can’t make it to the show, simply drop by your local multinational ad agency franchise, park yourself on the nearest beanbag right by the ‘break out zone’ and observe.
With these photographs, David Stewart simply holds up a mirror to highlight the ridiculous reality of everyday life in many of today’s agencies. Working with actors, and using large format film, the photographer has meticulously reconstructed and lampooned everything from ‘the client meeting’, to ‘the awards dinner’, ‘the shoot entourage’, the ‘approval committee’, ‘13 people standing behind a Mac operator’ and even the ‘agency elevator’.
Let’s start with that poor, hapless mac guy dodging friendly fire from his workmates. All the faces are illuminated by the low glow of a computer monitor. Horror movie lighting. How apt. The first thing to appreciate here is that in the modern agency apparently everyone can have ideas — making ads is a ‘collaborative process’ don’t y’know. ‘Everyone’s creative’ is the mantra of the day. Yeah, right. So, what do we suppose could be happening in this picture as the assembled co-workers stare at the woeful piece of communication on the screen?
Well, I reckon the account director thinks the person holding the product and smiling should be made even bigger. “You can Photoshop it can’t you? Yes, that’s right… but bigger than that… that’s much better.” The junior planner wonders out loud why the headline isn’t exactly the same as the turgid proposition on the creative brief that she took two months to write. The creative director (in name only) has decided to say nothing at all because she knows which side her bread is buttered. The intern from project management doesn’t get the idea. Yet another planner frowns slightly and ominously scribbles something in his notebook. Some smug charlatan at the back randomly mentions ‘growth hacking’, ‘programmatic 2.0’ and ‘blockchain’ all in the same sentence. Everyone nods, even when he throws in ‘storyscaping’, ‘ROR’ and ‘SoLoMo’ for good measure. Aaaand wait for it… there’s a pretty unanimous feeling amongst the group that the logo should be bigger. “No… bigger than that… that’s better.” Ah, ’collaboration’, where would we be without it? And all this before the client has even seen anything.
Which brings us nicely onto scenario two. The client meeting. With the senior client phoning in from Bracknell on con…f.. er…n…c c…..ll. What do we see in this delightful tableau? Well, it’s hard to miss the palpable, buttock-clenching fear etched on the faces of the account team, as they worship at the altar of a SoundStation IP 5000 executive conference call device. In another excruciating meeting room image there’s a different look lurking somewhere beneath the ample beard of the token creative. Resigned indifference just about sums it up. He’s no doubt blocking out the pain by dreaming of his vegan, purpose-driven ‘side-hustle’. We also note that everybody is in their mid-twenties so no one in the room has any real idea what they should be doing…
Actually, sorry… I can’t go on with this. It’s just too damn depressing. There are many more of these great images in the exhibition. Go see. There’s also an accompanying book, expertly designed by Browns. Buy now!!! It’s guaranteed to make you want to run a mile from a crappy career in advertising, or your money back.
Although… I dunno, am I over-reacting just a tad? Maybe this series of photographs simply pokes a bit of gentle fun. A knowing in-joke for the creative community. And let’s face it, it’s only advertising innit?
But 60 or so years after the creative revolution, the ad business is now at the stage where we have a holding company CEO declaring creative agencies unnecessary. Salary levels are not just stagnant but plummeting. And there’s zero job security with the regular mass-culling of art directors and copywriters over the age of 35. Yes kids, that’s you in a few years’ time. It seems that creative people are under attack on all fronts. Even their office walls have been kicked down. And an alarming number of ‘colleagues’ are more fixated on trying to bamboozle clients with bullshit buzzwords than helping to sell good ideas. So I think David Stewart just might be onto something here.
This body of work has been described elsewhere as a ‘wry’ look at advertising. I’d go further. I’d call it vicious. And timely. And a little heart-breaking. And necessary. In an era when advertising’s war against creative people has been almost won. Vive la résistance!
Paid Content is at Wren London, 39 Featherstone St, London EC1Y 8RE, until November 17. All images shown © David Stewart. Courtesy Wren London
Paul Belford is founder and creative director of agency Paul Belford Ltd
Browns Editions has published a 160-page book to coincide with the exhibition, designed by Browns. More information here
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