A Hollywood Ad Whiz on Creating Blockbuster Print Campaigns

Keeping up with advertising trends and best practices can feel overwhelming to a busy retailer. Questions abound: What’s the best way to capture the attention of millennial buyers? How much of my annual ad budget should be print vs. digital? Should I outsource or DIY the creative content?

We asked Emmett James, vice president and creative director of Los Angeles–based marketing agency Ignition Creative, for his thoughts on the current marketing landscape—and how retailers can create effective, impactful print campaigns. James has supported some of TV’s biggest hits—including Project Runway, Arrested Development, The Good Wife, Orphan Black, Duck Dynasty, Torchwood, and Dance Moms—on the ad and marketing sides.

Courtesy Emmett James

Emmett James, vice president and creative director of Ignition Creative in Los Angeles

Emmett James: Print advertising reaches a much broader audience domestically and internationally…. To me you just don’t have that visceral connection you have in print with online ads. I’ve never heard a person at the watercooler say, “Did you see that amazing banner ad online?” People discuss commercials and billboards all the time. But, make no mistake, the advertising space is moving quickly into a new chapter.

More and more, clients are pushing toward digital ads and are doing less outdoor advertising on billboards, bus shelters, etc. So…artwork that works well in standard poster size may not translate well to horizontals and other digital banner formats.  

JCKWhat’s a common misconception about print advertising?

James: That it’s easy to grab people’s attention. Estimates for how many ads as humans we see a day range from 3,000 to 20,000. It’s mind-blowing. We probably don’t notice half of them even though we’ve been exposed. The fact that you and the message are in reasonable proximity for you to see it doesn’t mean you saw it. Our brains can’t truly process that many messages. We can’t notice, absorb, or even judge the personal merit of 3,000 visual attacks a day. People’s attention has to be earned.

JCKWhat things should marketers keep in mind when conceptualizing a visually appealing and effective print ad?

James: Treat your target audience with respect. Assume they are much more intelligent than the average marketer gives them credit for. Every item has a unique selling point. It’s your job to find that in a visual.

JCKWhat are some common mistakes people make when designing ads? What looks awful?

James: Obnoxiously big type. Draw people in, don’t hit them over the head with your message. Humans are naturally curious. Pique people’s interest and engage them.

JCKWhat are things marketers can do to really catch people’s attention in print?

James: For me, I always play the opposite. When Project Runway was brought to me to market to the masses, the obvious would have been to dress up one of the most beautiful women in the world, Heidi Klum, in a fabulous couture fashion wardrobe. I choose instead to have her on the poster naked. A living, breathing mannequin waiting to be dressed by the contestants. I marketed a show about clothes not showing a single item of clothing.

JCKIn terms of messaging and text-to-photo ratio, what are some good tips for people? How much of the page should have text, as a rule?

James: The beauty is there are no hard-and-fast rules. I used to work with Jamie Reid who designed the album cover for the Sex Pistols’ now-iconic Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols. That was pure type—no visual at all—to introduce the world to what would become one of the most influential bands in music. Take risks. If I show you the most beautiful diamond in the world in a visual, is that more appealing than me telling you I have the most beautiful diamond you could possibly imagine? You are inevitably always going to be more intrigued by what your imagination conjures up.

JCK: When it comes to photographing product for print, what do you think people should be mindful of? What do people do wrong with photos in ads?

James: Spend the money on an incredible photographer. Photographers are some of my favorite people in the world. They truly do see the world through a completely different lens both physically and metaphorically. Just because your friend has a camera doesn’t mean it will be saving you a ton on advertising. Make your product look like a million dollars. It sounds simple, but you would be surprised about how many fall at the first hurdle and pay the price.

JCKCan you tell us a little about fonts and text in modern advertising? What do you think looks modern and what looks dated?

James: Stay away from modern fonts—your ad will date extremely quickly. Move toward timeless classics. Many designers pick a font as though they were searching for new music to listen to: They assess the personality of each face and look for something unique and distinctive that expresses their particular aesthetic, perspective, and personal history.

This approach is problematic, because it places too much importance on individuality. For better or for worse, picking a typeface is more like getting dressed in the morning. Just as with clothing, there’s a distinction between typefaces that are expressive and stylish versus those that are useful and appropriate to many situations, and our job is to try to find the right balance for the occasion. While appropriateness isn’t a sexy concept, it’s the acid test that should guide our choice of font in advertising.


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