How we made ads
The breakaway of the agency media departments into separate companies and the arrival of digital advertising and social media are recognised as revolutions which have had a profound effect on the advertising industry. However, there was an earlier revolution which led to many people leaving the industry, major suppliers closing and complete change in agency interiors. This was the arrival of the personal computer and internal typesetting. It changed the way we made ads.
Young people, listen up. This is how it was done from almost the beginning of our industry up until the end of the nineteen eighties.
When we presented an advertisement to a client in those days, we “scamped” out the layout and copy was presented a separate typewritten sheet. The scamp would be drawn by the art director and show the headline, roughly indicated to show the type style and size. During art school training he would usually learn to paint lettering with a brush to a high standard onto the designs. This way the art students also learned the forms of each typeface and was able recognise each type design. The tutors at my college made us trace many letters and create designs using just one letter. Art directors became adept at quickly “ticking in” a typeface with a marker pen on the rough ad. Body copy was indicated by parallel line in ink or pencil echoing the “x” height of the typeface. The art director was also expected to draw any images due to appear in the ad. He had to be able to show what the action going to be depicted in the final photo shot. This rough ad or scamp was also called a “visual”. From this the client could see what the agency was planning. For a more final presentation the agency might even typeset the ad and even take a guide photo. Often we used Letraset which was invented during the 1960’s. At first it was really fiddly. One had to float the letter off the background using water and then press it into place after lining each up on a small material screen. Later on, Letraset developed into larger wax backed sheets with the letters arranged in alphabets. One held the sheet in position with the letter aligned with the previous one and then it was burnished down. There were tools sold for this purpose. One sheet had one size of a particular font. If you thought 36pt was too big, you had to rush out and buy for a sheet of 24pt so it was too expensive to use for all jobs. One also soon discovered that all the “e” s had been used up and you were left with ‘z’ and ‘v’ – all the less popular letters.
Having got approval for visual one had to prepare artwork for printing. Letterpress, which was the usual production method of most newspaper at that time, with raised surfaces on semi- circular plates that were attached to the rollers on a printing press, and then inked. The images the agency supplied were photo-engraved – etched with acid to become printing plates with raised areas for the image and lower etched away areas became the white space. The production manager in an agency was very important in these days as there was a lot of checking of proofs and adjustments. When I was in London, I would go to the Sunday Times with the production manager to check and correct the gravure plates (another printing process). One had to have a knowledge of print processes and an eye for adjusting the four colours produced by the inks to get them close to the actual skin or cloth colour shown in the original photograph.
To produce the artwork for reproduction, the finished artists had to stick the headline and body copy onto a stiff white board, kept clean by a semi-transparent sheet folded over as a cover. Prior to this the typographer marked up the copy, choosing the typeface in conjunction with the art director. The typographer was a skilled and essential member of the creative team. He knew the range of typefaces available by heart and also used comprehensive books produced by typesetting houses to help select a typeface which was in keeping with the ad content. The whole alphabet in capitals and lower-case letters, punctuation and numerals in the various sizes were on each page. The art directors and typographers would trace of the letters from these sheets. The top typos sometimes earned more than the art directors. Their influence on the ad was substantial. A poor typographer could also bring down a good idea.
The typographer would count the characters (including the word spaces) in a piece of copy to see if the type would fit the space allocated. The good guys prided themselves on being able to indicate within a couple of words where the copy would fall. They used a white plastic leading gage to check how deep the copy would fall. This was measured in points. 1.5 points or 2pt leading or solid (no leading) was common. A “lead” (pronounced as the metal) was a rule made of lead and every printer had these to put between the lines of typeset copy.
Typesetting was sent to an outside supplier. There were often large companies who sometimes did colour separations as well. It was common to have motorcycle messengers racing to deliver proofs to agencies who were rushing to meet deadlines. The typesetting houses worked day and night shifts. In the typesetting houses were compositors. These guys were well-paid professionals. In the UK they were all protected union members. They composed each line of type in a “stick” – a metal v- shaped holder, letter by letter. The individual letters were picked out from a tray called a “case”. Sometimes they put in a letter that was the wrong font or back to front so the typographer would check for such errors at proof stage. The typewritten and the typographers mark-up were sent to the typesetting firm. One the ad was set, it came back the next day proofed on newsprint-type paper for checking and any copy amendments were then made. After this the type was proofed on byrata paper with a very white smooth finish. The ink took longer to dry as the paper was not absorbent the ad was held up for two days for this process.
Once the final proof with headline came into the agency studio, the finished artists would stick the type in position on the board along with a guide print of the illustration or photograph. Logos would be added, and some small companies specialised in a fast print service. In those days it was a photographic service as photocopiers did not have the quality of reproduction. When I first came to Singapore I tried to persuade the agency to buy a relatively cheap print machine that would give us quicker prints and save money. I was taken aside and warned to keep my gweilonose out of it as the studio manager was earning a nice commission on all the prints. Years later, I heard the production manager, who had a similar arrangement with the plate maker, was taken to court.
The artists here and in the UK used a rubber gum called Cow to stick down the paper on the board. This was either brushed on with a spatula or the spray version was used. Each studio needed a spray booth and this spray gum got over everything in the vicinity! Agencies tried to have extractor fans but most landlords would not allow one in the window of rented office buildings so we lived with the smell and stickiness.
Art studios often used have a paint spray machine and the finished artists used these to do simple retouching on black and white photos or to create large flat surface colours for artwork.
One other machine found in the studio I must mention is the Lucy or Grant Projector. It was in this machine that we enlarged type and pictures before indicating them on the layout. It had a hood to keep out the light and a flat glass top. The original was placed on a tray below lit by built in lights. The image could be seen through a lens. Two handles were on the front. One enabled the artists to wind up the tray and the other to refocus. We literally traced the letters out on layout paper via the image in the Lucy.
For some reason Singapore did not have headline typesetting facility called photosetting which was very popular in London. Team was the only local company that eventually offered this service in 1986. In London, these smaller specialist firms did not offer text setting but just set headlines on roll of film. These firms offered a huge range of headline typefaces (I designed two typefaces for one of these) but more importantly they knew how space the letters. Now we could get nice tight headlines without cutting up with a scapel blade and placing each individual letter to crunch them together or improve the spacing of a typeset headline. I still have the scar on my right index finger showing where I slipped while cutting up individual letters.
Then the personal computer came along. For about $12,000 the agency could buy a computer to produce typesetting internally. Never mind that the choice of typefaces was horribly limited, the agency bosses saw a chance to save money by cutting out the typesetters. The first to invest were the agencies who had a big classified division. It meant that not only did it become cheaper to produce the ads but they could turn them around quickly which is essential for employment ads. Good typography was not important. Slowly all the agencies bought in computers and the typesetting companies, including Team, slowly went out of business.
The other group of companies that also disappeared were the specialist photographic retouchers working in black and white and colour. The most skilled were the transparency retouchers. Their skills were reflected in the charges! However, the retouchers were true artists. They would bleach out the transparency film and then add inks to put in the new corrected colour. On top of this they could actually turn a scowl on the original transparency into a smile and one would not be able to see the changes had been made. It was skilled and exacting work that took talent and years to learn. Now computers, even our home computers can brush out backgrounds, insert skin tones or even put a new head on a figure. Apart from a short stay ex-pat, transparencies would have to be sent to Australia for colour retouching. This difficulty and the lack of descent budgets in Singapore, led to much inferior work appearing and some good ideas ( I created an ad for SingTel which involved putting snow in Orchard Road but we could not afford the retouching) were just not practical with the limitations in those days. I envy today’s art directors their opportunities to create stunning images.
The other casualties were the finished artists and the studio managers. Many could not learn to operate this new technology. I sent my staff in Singapore on training courses. It was usually the girls who learnt best. The others were forced out of the business. Their wonderful skills were redundant. Typographers only continued to exist in rarified areas in the best London agencies or a freelance specialists and many switched to design. Soon it was the art directors who were under pressure. Clients began to expect layouts or visuals that looked like the finish ad. This could only be done via the computer. More talented people left the industry.
The down side of this change was that many art directors did not work hard on the idea but focused on what looked good and selected images they could steal off the Internet. Clients, of course, loved the high finish agencies could now offer. They often didn’t have much imagination so this helped a great deal. The other benefit as far as clients was concerned was that changes to the copy could be done just an hour before sending to the publications. The result has, in my opinion, resulted in less care in checking copy at the early stages as people know they can change at the ninth hour and more late nights for the studio staff.
In the old days we knew we needed at least a week to produce artwork for a press advertisement and we all worked to that timing. Reps for the newspaper used to sit in the studio waiting for the artwork to catch the newspapers evening deadline.
Gone are the spray booths, the Lucy, the plans chest full of boards, the drawers of Letraset and artists tables strewn with paper and magic markers. Gone is the cheerful chaos. Today often the art directors sit in silent rows behind computer screens. The studio and creative department looks like an office in an accountancy firm!
While I do have nostalgia for the old days, and admiration for the skills of the old timers, I think the computer has been a blessing for the advertising industry. I cannot imagine, once again, typing this piece out, as in the past, on a manual typewriter and using white paint to remove errors.
Article contributed by Allein Moore
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