Author Robin Landa on the Art of Advertising Textbooks, Interviewed by Greg Braun

Staying relevant and engaging in a fast-moving business

Formerly the deputy global chief creative officer for Commonwealth//McCann, I now practice my creativity in classrooms instead of boardrooms.

Recently I realized two goals of mine. Retiring from this business of advertising which has given me so much, and paying it forward by transitioning into teaching. When I first started, I used to receive various advertising textbooks in my mailbox from publishers. My reviews were similarly consistent, ranging from "irrelevant" to "useless." Then one day I randomly received a book titled Advertising by Design by Robin Landa. I opened it with my usual skepticism and immediately found myself drawn in by its insight and inspiration. Basically, this was the advertising textbook I wished I'd had back when I was a student.

I wrote the author to tell her so, and I'm happy to say we've been friends and collaborators ever since. In a conversation with Clio Awards editor in chief Tim Nudd, we discussed how, in spite of their importance to our next generation of advertising professionals, there's never been much dialogue about the role of advertising textbooks. That became the impetus for my candid interview below with Robin Landa, the successful author of over 20 books on advertising and creativity that are used in colleges around the world.

Greg Braun: Until now, there's hardly been any coverage in the ad press about the craft and creation of advertising textbooks. Why is that?

Robin Landa: Advertising moves rapidly; much of it is ephemeral. Perhaps textbooks seem tweedy to the ad press, who cover up-to-the minute advertising campaigns and issues. What the ad press is missing by not reviewing a book such as Advertising by Design is not only the content that molds future creatives but fascinating in-depth interviews with esteemed CCOs, ECDs, CDs and ADs.

Now, I'm co-authoring a trade book about how to get ideas with the fabulous Rich Tu, and working with a wise editor, who says textbooks cover everything while trade books focus on one thing. The press might find the "everything" factor off-putting.

Creating a worthwhile textbook takes a lot of time, requires extensive research, writing and rewriting, not to mention curating and acquiring permission to include outstanding ad solutions. Textbooks undergo peer reviews. If your readers don't know what that means, selected academics review and critique the manuscript, offering their (unfiltered) opinions. Reading peer review results often requires two glasses of wine. 

As an advertising professor, I'm now exposed to a lot of textbooks on the subject. I was initially shocked to see how few of them accurately reflect the business. In fact, it's disconcerting to imagine how many earnest students are taking the inaccurate information in these books to heart. Your books, however, are a breath of fresh air. How have you managed to keep your finger on the pulse of the industry in a way that's shareable?

Creatives are very generous—I've had the honor to interview some of the best minds in the industry, including you, Greg. With every interview, I learn a great deal from industry leaders, such as Rei Inamoto, Jayanta Jenkins, Nick Law, Sophia Lindholm, José Mollá, Julia Neumann and PJ Pereira, among many others. Also included are brilliant essays by industry experts; the one you wrote for the new edition is superb.

I have long-standing friendships with many industry experts, which allow for dialogues, adding a dimension to the Q&A. During one of our conversations, Greg, you pointed out that as an academic, my vision isn't clouded by loyalties to one network over another, which is true. My loyalty is to my readers. I am free to seek out and engage with our industry's most inspired and instructive work. 

My students and I take on pro-bono work, which keeps me fresh. We've done work for John Prendergast's The Enough Project, which supports peace and an end to mass atrocities in Africa's deadliest conflict zones; the Community Food Bank of New Jersey; and now we're working on the end-of-year campaign for Free for Life International, an anti-trafficking nonprofit organization. 

For our work for The Enough Project, my student team and I received a Humanitarian award.

A student once asked me, why do we have to read books at all when everything we need is already online? I'll play devil's advocate and share a quote from Thelonious Monk, who once said "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture." Is writing about creativity superfluous?

When I asked Mike Felix, CD, DDB New Zealand, for a statement about creativity, his reply was, "You can't write a quote arguing for creativity. If you were really being creative, you'd find a more effective way to get your point across."

True enough. 

On the other hand, creativity is a subject that psychologists, philosophers, academics (like me) and other experts research because it tells us something about how our minds operate, about why some people can generate interesting ideas and others can't, about a way to gain knowledge and improve cognition, and more importantly, about our humanity.

Think about the number of advertising solutions that win top industry awards compared to the number of ads produced and distributed within a year's time. I would say that most advertising, like most novels, most music, most screenplays, is pedestrian or formulaic. What makes the award winners so definitively creative? What separates Thelonious Monk from most jazz pianists and composers? If "talent" is your answer, think about what creativity has to do with that trait.

Now I'm working on a book about ideation and researching people who have had worthwhile ideas—ideas that solve problems, spur growth, and move the needle. There is a commonality in how those people think. Wouldn't it be valuable to understand how they conceived fresh ideas and changed the playing field?

When I first starting teaching, one of my senior colleagues was a gifted sculptor. I say gifted because although her art was outstanding, she couldn't articulate how to make art; it all came naturally to her, thus making it hard to break it down for others. She had little patience for the students who weren't gifted, to whom art making didn't come naturally.

And yet, you absolutely can teach people how to make art. You can teach people to write well. You can teach people to conceive creative or even strategically creative ideas. I do it every semester.

Beyond creativity, there's imagination. Creative people put an interesting twist on existent ideas or things. Imaginative people invent, innovate, and conceive and produce new ideas and things. They build what others haven't imagined.

Several classic advertising books came out in the late '90s that gave me a lot of insight into the industry as a creative just starting out. I pulled several of them for my students because some of the content is still so valuable, but I found myself a little surprised at how un-PC some of the writing was by today's standards. Not in a toxic masculinity way, but more in an insidiously condescending way that I was too young and desperate to recognize at the time. How are you promoting equality in your writing?

The first time I saw "Killing Us Softly," a lecture and film by media scholar and feminist activist Jean Kilbourne, I was shocked by some of the body-language messages in advertising I hadn't noticed prior. I had noticed the sexualized representation of women in advertising—that was hard to miss. But I hadn't been vigilant about spotting subtler portrayals. For example, in one ad for a high-end alcohol brand, we see the man in the photograph looking straight at the audience but the gaze of the woman, who is standing slightly behind the man with her hands on his shoulders, is directed at him, adoringly. Minor grievance? Perhaps, but it sends a message of subordination.

We have enduring patterns of stereotypes about gender, sexuality, neurodiversity, age, ability, race and ethnicity. They are stubborn patterns. Even now, we see stereotyped portrayals of men in advertising and branding—bumbling men trying to do laundry or care for their children. I suppose they're saying men are not intended to be caregivers or enforcing the role men should not play. Society pays a terrible price for stereotyped representations. All of us can cite examples of racism, sexism and ableism in contemporary advertising and branding. 

Tropes circulate and recirculate to the detriment of all.

As your readers know, due to the truth in advertising laws, advertising is not allowed to "fake" disability; the law requires agencies to hire disabled actors, models and athletes for their campaigns. Yet, we still see portrayals that stigmatize. 

In the new 4th edition of Advertising by Design, I offer a set of investigative queries focused on 1) interrogating ideas, images and text, 2) power and 3) appropriation. What we create sets out to persuade people and can shape thinking. At the very least, we all must contribute as little to hegemonic systems currently in place as possible through our solutions and carry out due diligence to steer towards a better future.

Advertising is in a constant state of change, which is one of the main reasons it's hard to teach in a traditional academic sense, as opposed to subjects like finance or economics, for example. You always seem to stay current even though books are literally a physical medium. How are you able to do that?

Ideas. Ideas. Ideas.

I focus on strategic creative thinking, generating ideas that move the needle, and creating solutions that people will find engaging and shareworthy. I explain how to become more imaginative, ask probing questions, and produce fresh ideas that stand out from ordinary ideas—ones that change the playing field.

I emphasize thinking without a playbook, a tenet I learned from PJ Pereira.

The biggest challenge is to explain how to create unique branded content that entertains, informs or does some social good, and that will resonate with people.

My mantra is, Everything is content. Content is everything.

A publisher sent me a textbook on advertising recently, and while some of it was valuable, the validity of the entire book was undermined by the shockingly bad creative campaigns showcased as examples. Certainly nothing that would ever even get in the same ZIP code as a Clio Award. One of the first things I noticed about your books is how well they're curated. It's either work I know and admire, or admirable work I'm introduced to. How are you curating the creative you showcase?

The Clio Awards archive makes curation easy. I seek out work that not only wins awards, such as work awarded by the Clios, Cannes or The One Club, but I return again and again to creatives I admire.

Often, there's great work I am unable to include because clients won't sign off, which I've never understood. Of course, I could imagine an apparel client not wanting to include a fashion season that has passed by the time the book is published, but I don't even seek that type of advertising. Honestly, why wouldn't a client or CCO want to be part of advertising's creative chronicle and form young creatives' thinking?

Sometimes I think the agency gatekeepers don't even bother to ask the clients or the CCOs. 

After a 25-year advertising career, one of the things I discovered as a professor was that many of the things I did on a daily basis as a CCO had become instinctive. In other words, I'd forgotten what it was like to be a beginner and sometimes I found myself struggling to distill the creative process in ways my students could apply. Fortunately, I had your textbooks to help me. How are you designing your books to accentuate what teaching professionals already know?

I ask myself, What would I have wanted to know as a junior AD? What would I need to hit the floor running? Just as in a creative brief, I answer all the investigative questions—who, what, why, how and where.

I focus on how to generate fresh and relevant ideas. Learning to formulate an idea is paramount. Even today, learning to communicate a message through a synergistic relationship of copy and image is an important goal, regardless of media platform.

Concurrently, I emphasize art direction: visualization, typography and composition. In tandem, I explain media and the specific nature of each media channel and how it can be utilized most effectively for the audience, brand or entity, and budget. I discuss the merits of the idea and art direction/copy, along with how the art direction and copy can best communicate the idea.

A unique feature of the instructor's materials is explaining my method of working backward. Now that content is king, I ask students to work backward—to create unique content first, and then determine which brand it could serve. Of course, this is not how it works on the job, but working this way makes the students' thinking fertile and nimble.

One of my former students told me that when she was on her first agency team, she kept saying, "We can do this, or we can do this." Her copywriting partner, who had studied at a portfolio school, couldn't keep up with her plethora of germane and strategically creative ideas.

That young woman had to convince her parents that the creative side of advertising is a lucrative field. I know many parents are dubious—they know what accountants do, what attorneys do, but what we do is puzzling. When parents attend our university's open houses with their kids, the first question parents ask is, "Will my child be able to get a job in the field?"

About 10 years ago, I had a terrific student in my classes. My unique teaching methodologies plus running my senior classes like an advertising bootcamp really didn't jibe with his learning style, though he succeeded despite his apparent displeasure with my methods. One year after graduation while working at his first junior AD job at an esteemed NYC agency, he came back to visit. He said, "Robin, I really didn't like your classes, but if I hadn't taken them, I would not have hit the floor running at my agency. So, thank you." He's now an ECD and a friend.

Our industry's next generation is in college right now. Therefore, the quality of advertising textbooks is very relevant to the kind of future talent we'll have access to. As an author and as an educator, what's your responsibility to the next generation of creative professionals?

Hope lies in reflection. 

Whether it's to raise awareness about social justice, bias, ethics, or what is strategically creative, I feel a great responsibility.

Dealing with bias requires examining your assumptions and the assumptions of the folks creating the brand or entity's communication. By interrogating your own thinking, being mindful of unconscious bias, you start the process of being aware when stereotypic associations are being employed or constructed in creative solutions. The messages we create, shape and distribute reflect society as well as shape it. We absorb what the messages communicate and put our own responses out there, on social media platforms, on websites, and in conversation. It's a significant challenge to ensure that whatever we send out is responsible.

As I said earlier, I created a set of questions to help people interrogate their thinking and solutions. It's an open resource—I'm delighted to share it with anyone.

People learn from what they see in popular culture. Let's make sure they're learning respect and inclusion.

Naturally, I have a great responsibility to keep the curriculum current. As soon as smartphones were commercialized, I started teaching advertising for mobile media. It is my critical responsibility to stay relevant.

Advertising is a business of engagement, yet so many textbooks I encounter are seemingly designed to chase students to another major because they're so brutally boring. Several of my students tell me they read the unassigned chapters of your book Advertising by Design just for fun, and that they'd never done that with a textbook before. How are you engineering engagement into your books, and what might you reveal to us about book writing in general?

You're very kind to say that, Greg. Thank you. 

I ask myself, "What am I trying to say, and what's the clearest way to say it?"

The best tip I can offer to your readers is: Write active sentences. Avoid passive sentence constructions. In an active sentence, we know who is performing the action. Active sentences are more engaging. In his memoir On Writing, Stephen King emphasizes this advice.

I take poet and novelist Robert Graves' point to heart: "There is no such thing as good writing. Only good rewriting."

Finally, always write with the reader in mind.

When publishers send out peer reviews to other professors, they ask, "Would you adopt this book?" A few people have responded by saying they intend to write their own book on the topic.

Beyond the huge amount of work that goes into writing a book, what surprises most people about getting published is you must get through three gatekeepers at a publishing house. First, a senior editor who acquires titles must be enthusiastic about your proposal. Just as in branding and advertising, you must make clear what differentiates your book's content from the competition. Then the senior editor brings it to the editorial board—all the senior editors must believe it's worth publishing. Finally, your proposal goes to the publication board, composed of the senior editors, marketing folks, and other company leaders, who must approve for your book to be greenlighted.

A little publishing secret: Publishers expect their authors to do their own marketing now and a lot of it. Maybe not Michelle Obama or Malcolm Gladwell, but pretty much everyone else. 

For most authors, writing a book won't fund their retirement or their vacation. Some authors don't even make a profit. Let's say the average author makes a royalty of 10 percent on the net profit of each book. So, if the book lists at $20, the publisher might make $15, and you'd get $1.50. To make $1500, 1,000 people would have to purchase your book (and not return it). If you worked on your book for a year—well, you could see the hourly wage wouldn't be enticing. 

I've been very fortunate. My royalties have allowed me to fund many college scholarships for promising talent.

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Greg Braun
Greg Braun is the retired deputy global chief creative officer of Commonwealth//McCann. In recent years, he has taken up teaching creativity to the next generation, holding posts at the College for Creative Studies, the Michael Graves College of Design in Rome, and Calvin University.

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