A Conversation With Creative Director David Swope, Part One

John Bukowinski:

Let's start at the beginning - tell me a little bit about where you grew up and what that context was like.

David Swope:

I grew up in Palo Alto as a child of the seventies. I was always making things. Some of my influences creatively were Dr. Seuss, Calvin and Hobbs and then The Far Side. They each have a loose, organic style of drawing with a twisted sense of humor, and that was something I tried early on.My dad had a Super 8 mm camera, and in high school, the neighborhood kids and I made stop motion films, and we made a horror movie. That gave me a taste of storytelling. I didn't realize it would turn into a career making TV commercials.

John Bukowinski:

So video was a big part early on.

David Swope:

Video was a big part early on, and also cartooning. A third thing was architecture. We had a remodel going on at my house as I was growing up. So I was hanging out with the architect all the time. I'd take graph paper and draw what I thought it should look like and where I wanted to put stuff and things like that. All my architect friends say, "Be glad you didn't go into architecture."

John Bukowinski:

Yeah, there's a common thread here. I've seen that a lot, where there's a link between architecture and design or creative direction, advertising. I've heard of a lot of people transitioning from architecture to the commercial arts.

David Swope:

I have a theory on that. We did a remodel in the house I'min right now. It was kind of a fixer. And what is similar is that when you come into a brand in advertising, you look at it with potential, like it's a fixer-upper. And so as a creative person, you kind of can see what it could be.You imagine a new look for it. Maybe you imagine a new style, not just a new coat of paint. You want to tear down some walls and rebuild it, bring in some new furniture and make it livable for you — or for your client basically. So in a way, that's how I look at advertising. It's like an architectural challenge.

John Bukowinski:

Nicely put, I like that. Were you a creative kid? What kind of influences did you have growing up that nudged you toward a creative career?

David Swope:

I moved on from doing a lot of my own cartoons to being the editor-in-chief of the high school newspaper. I had a great advisor who taught layout and deadlines. Those are two things that kind of rubbed off on me as a designer, as an art director. How to design big pages overall, how to design copy, and also do some writing. It helped me to write headlines and write copy, and then I used my illustrations and my cartoons. In a way, advertising is an extension of journalism—a higher paid extension.

John Bukowinski:

Yeah, it's interesting that you're into writing. That’s another common characteristic of creative director types, that they like to look at things from a bird's eye view and see the big picture. And oftentimes writing goes really well with that tendency.

David Swope:

I never saw myself as being a writer. I wrote because it was a way to tell a story. I liked creative writing and I enjoyed advertising. Just short headlines. If you're going to be a creative director, you have to understand both sides. I've partnered with a lot of copywriters. So I know the benefit of working with somebody who is a professional writer. They bring a lot to it that I don't have. It's a great partnership when you're a visual person, to have somebody with a verbal background, for creative sparring and ideation. But as you get to a point where you have to instruct all creatives, copywriters, and art directors, you have to be able to understand how to fix an idea and how to craft an edit, a headline or body copy.

John Bukowinski:

Did you have encouragement to follow your passion from your parents and your community?

David Swope:

My parents encouraged me follow my heart in art and commercial art, as it was called back then, and they saw that I was good at making things. It wasn't anything that ran in our family. I ended up studying design at UCLA. When you go through a design program, your path can split into becoming a designer or an art director. At that point, I could have been a graphic designer, but I'm not a perfectionist. I love art and design when it is perfect, but I don't need to finesse it and finagle it to the point where I spend weeks kerning and exploring every different type, and all the different color combinations. But I do love the craft of design.

So to me design is 'perfection,' while advertising is 'action'. And by that I mean advertising is constantly changing, and you have deadlines, and you may get something into the market, and then it's gone. You can also evolve a campaign over time. When you design a logo, that's it. You have to live with it. But an ad campaign just comes and goes. I like the deadlines, the adrenaline rush, the chance to change direction, and to work on a lot of different projects at once.

John Bukowinski:

Deadlines; that’s a topic I wanted to address. How have they changed for you from early on in your career to now? Do you feel like they've become more aggressive?

David Swope:

I'm dating myself, but there was a time when deadlines were based on the FedEx guy, and you'd be working on stuff and they'd say, "All right, FedEx is leaving at 5:15". So you get all your layouts done. They stick them in an envelope, and that's it. You wait til the next day to hear from the client. And then, there was this extended period of time with a lot of back and forth. Digital has made feedback quicker, but it's also removed a lot of the concept time. It's been able to speed up our process, but it's removed a lot of experimentation. That's what comes when you have time, when you sit on an idea and you kind of say, well, we could lay it out this way, or we could build something, we could craft it together out of different textures, or we could explore fonts.

Then you had time to go out and shoot something, but now people just go on Getty, grab an image, use a template, and in 20 minutes they're done. The account people or clients are driving these timelines. I feel like you as a designer have to put your foot down. You have to put your stake in the ground and say, "This is what I stand for. This is what I believe.And this is how I work. And I'm going to push back on unrealistic deadlines."

John Bukowinski:

That's a really important point. And I don't know how often it falls on deaf ears. That's a factor, but we also play it safe now because we have all this data to support what works. So we say, let's just do this because we know it works. We have the metrics to support that versus doing something that's way out in left field. That is a risk that we’re not willing to take as much anymore.

David Swope:

You're absolutely right about the lack of risk-taking. It's been an evolution. It didn't all happen at once. In the late nineties some of the best advertising in the world was being done in San Francisco. It was done by agencies like Goodby Silverstein and Butler, Shine & Stern, Goldberg Moser O'Neill and Chiat/Day. Even big agencies like FCB — they were doing some great Levi's work. And each agency had its own brand. If you hiredHal Riney, for instance, you knew you were going to get folksy. Citron Haligman Bedeccare and Mandlebaum Mooney Ashley always had amazing art direction and design. If you hired Goodby, Black Rocket or Butler, you'd get edgy out-of-the-box thinking. That ingrained agency persona and brand went away with the dot-com explosion at the turn of the millennium. All these new companies sprang up, and new agencies to service them. Creatives left in droves to take stock options and work for the highest bidders. So all of a sudden, the creative talent in San Francisco was scrambled. Agencies lost their ability to stand for anything real, and it hasn't been the same since.

Also, back in the 90's, the media options were limited.You could only run TV, out-of-home, print and radio. Banners were just starting to take off. So it was much easier to craft a campaign. Everyone would see the same ads over and over. And you'd experience them as a campaign, not just one-offs. So to stand out, your campaign required a big idea. Newspaper, magazines and out-of-home were more important then than now. Billboards, the sides of buses, transit. People were looking for stuff to read on BART, not looking down at their iPhones. As far as TV, everybody saw the same commercials, because we all watched the same shows. In those days, it was"Friends" and "Seinfeld" every Thursday night. You had appointment TV. Then it fragmented with cable, and gaming and the internet of the early 2000's. Thanks to streaming, nobody watches the same shows at the same time any more. The only way that you get a commercial seen on a mass scale is through sports or events like the Academy awards. That's your only chance to really be timely with your marketing and launch a big idea that people will talk about.

Then everything turned into banners that were static or flash driven, HTML. There's not much you can say in a tiny little banner. It's all targeting and re-targeting. A company can target you and look at metrics and prove if something is working. They can A-B test anything—a visual, offer, or the CTA. And they'll claim that eliminates the need for creativity. When I was a creative director at TiVo, I fought really hard for everything from banner headlines to the color of a button, because there were a lot of left-brained people who would push back and say, "Well, if this banner gets a 5% higher click through rate, then we're going to go with it, whether it's more creative or not."

John Bukowinski:

Yeah. You are singing a very familiar tune! I've had that experience countless times. Do you see any hope as a creative by means of dialoguing with those people, fighting the good fight and justify taking a little bit of risk?

David Swope:

When you get everybody on the same team on the same page, then you can start to push back creatively. Check out "Start With Why" by Simon Sinek. It's also a great Ted talk. If you're not familiar with it, the main point is that if you're a company, it doesn't help to just know WHAT you sell. You have to know HOW and most importantly WHY. The example he uses is Apple. If they only said, "Apple makes computers and phones," you're not going to buy them. So start with WHY. WHY does Apple do what they do? They challenge convention with everything that they make. It's been their tagline for decades: "Think different." Then the next level is HOW they do it. They do it with smartly designed products. They're easy to use and beautifully designed. The last level is WHAT they do. Any product that they make — a watch, an iPod, a phone, a computer, a blender. You're going to buy an Apple blender if they make one, because you believe that it will be different. So if you can get everybody in your company to agree to yourWHY — the WHY you exist — then you can push back on them. With creative, you can say this creative marries up with our marching orders. We're all marching in the same direction. And as long as the creative follows that emotionally-targeted direction, then you have a very good argument for everybody to get on board. Even people that may be in analytics, product development, or even in accounting. So that's helpful. You almost have to be rational with your creativity for some people.

John Bukowinski:

Like a layered approach. Maybe  you're pitching it with the veneer of rationality, but inside there's emotion.

David Swope:

Yes. And I believe that emotion is the only thing that's going to get most people to buy. The amygdala is the part of the brain that says, "I need this Porsche." Not, "This Porsche is a smart decision." You can't rationalize a decision like that. "Yeah. I need to drive a hundred miles an hour." No, it makes you gotta have it. For example, you can make a list of all the reasons why people should buy a TiVo, but at the end of the day, they don't want a list. They want TiVo to make their evenings more fun. And so "funner" became our tagline.

John Bukowinski:

How did you work your way up to creative director?

David Swope:

I was thinking about going into film out of school, and then I took some classes at Ad Center and thought advertising was really cool. I built a portfolio and moved from LA up to San Francisco after having five interviews with Grey Advertising. Five interviews just to be a junior art director. I kept flying up from LA for this stupid $24,000 a year job, and a copywriter tapped me on the shoulder. He told me, "Don't take a job here. I've been here for three years and I haven't produced anything." That was a wakeup call. As a young creative, you've got to be producing work for your portfolio. I started my job search over and ended up at a very edgy, small, boutiquey shop, Wolfe/Doyle. It allowed me the chance to wear a lot of different hats. I came in as employee number three, and when I left we had 35.I made hundreds — if not thousands — of ads. A lot of them for very low budgets, but that allowed me to grow, to become an Associate Creative Director and have my hands on directing, photo shoots, retouching, layouts, logo designs and even packaging.

John Bukowinski:

Wow. So what happened to Wolf Doyle? Are they still around?

David Swope:

They imploded. Wolfe went off to New York, Doyle had to retire. They couldn't make the turn into the digital age. They had no interest in doing website design and banners. After that, I started picking up some of my own clients and decided to freelance. I had worked almost seven years at one small shop. I needed to get more diverse experience, which I highly recommend.So I freelanced for another seven years for SF's big and small ad agencies — Venables Bell, BBDO, Eleven, AKQA, Hal Riney, and others. In the meantime, I'd pick up some small clients. I also worked on my portfolio a lot. I partnered with great photographers and created some spec ads. I worked with some new directors, and we made spec TV commercials to build our reels.

John Bukowinski:

Were spots your forté or were you selling yourself as more of an all-rounder?

David Swope:

Early on my background was as a print guy — a lot of print ads, logos, out-of-home. But my love has always been in telling stories, mostly through 30-second commercials. In the past five years, I've learned how to shoot, direct, and edit video. And I'm learning motion graphics. I made a handful of documentary films, just for the fun of it, and got into big festivals. Making films and content for clients is now viable, because the internet has gotten faster exponentially. I remember when the bandwidth was so tight, you had to wait with a spinning ball. Early on you couldn't run anything more than a very low K banner.

Online videos back then were really small. Now you can create 4k films and stream them. There are a growing number of clients out there who want to tell their stories in video and motion. So I've encouraged all my photographer friends to learn to shoot and edit. Now I can do it, too. I love to work with real directors and real shooters. It helps to know those skills, if you want to be a creative director on shoots with directors. You need to know what's possible for camera angles and lighting. And what the best way is to tell your story, how to frame it up (ie, with a two-shot over the shoulders) and how to do storyboarding. From a visual standpoint, shooting film is just an extension of a print shoot, but you're telling a story in time with motion.

John Bukowinski:

Looking back, it's been a little bit of an esoteric skillset, but now that's changing, where you can get these skills in a lot of different places without really having to go to school or spend a ton of money on equipment. Is that the route you took to gain some of those skills?

David Swope:

My first exposure to filmmaking came when my last agency brought in a production company to actually come in and teach us to use DSLR cameras, lighting and audio. Masterclass is a phenomenal way to dive deeply into some of the great directors—Ron Howard, Werner Herzog, Scorsese. I also recommend a site called "Story & Heart," which teaches indie filmmaking techniques. They have a series of 200+ lessons, behind the scenes on film and documentary making. They teach you how to direct and film everything from interviews to action, how to set up lighting and record audio and more.From storyboarding to the final edit. Very practical.

John Bukowinski:

So, what are you up to now?

David Swope:

I'm looking for a creative director opportunity. I love the variety of working for an ad agency. I'd like to join a smaller shop and help them kind of push their boundaries creatively and build a team as we grow.I'm realistic that a lot of the jobs that are available are client-side. With the pandemic going on, they're the ones who are going to have the money first.And a lot of them are bringing the ability to do the work in-house to control the creative output — and to control their money. One benefit of working client-side is you can dive deeper creatively when you have creative people living and breathing your brand 40 to 50 hours a week. You're going to know it inside and out, as opposed to an ad agency which might throw a junior team on your account. They'll put three hours of Googling what you do, and then they're expected to write your ad campaign.

John Bukowinski:

Well, it's interesting you say that because on the flip side, perhaps client-side creatives can potentially get bogged down and miss the forest for the trees, whereas agencies can provide that new perspective as "newbies".

David Swope:

I don't disagree with you. I came into TiVo with ad agency experience in order to create a department that was basically a small agency.And I had fresh outside TiVo thinking, having worked on HP and Microsoft. WhenI arrived, there were a lot of people embedded at TiVo that were a bit old school. They had entrenched themselves in that mindset of "this is how we've always done things." So one thing is you've got to break through to those people and get them on your side. Another thing is that you've got to realize when you go client-side, that suddenly you are not the biggest fish in the pond anymore. When you're in that ad agency, what you sell is what YOU make. When you're at a client, what they sell is what THEY make. And marketing is only one part of that equation. You have sales teams, international teams, product design, web design and all that. Marketing is just one sliver.

John Bukowinski:

When you were working at TiVo, did you eventually start to feel burnt out because of your personality type? I'm just going to venture a guess – you like that variety, to learn new things and work with new clients. Did TiVo give you that opportunity or was it stifling?

David Swope:

I was there for three years and we did a complete rebrand/refresh. We redesigned the logo and turned the TiVo guy from 2D into 3D, gave him a voice, animated him, gave him a personality. And we built a campaign around him coming to life and being your entertainment wingman. The company took forever to roll it out. They wanted to make sure this thing was gonna work. They focus group tested the creative, they tested the voice. They looked at the animation, they tested that. Then we went into several markets and we ran the campaign. And what happened? It actually worked — increased perception and sales. But we couldn't get the CEO to budge on spending the kind of money that they needed to spend to make a difference, to make an impact. And that's kind of where I ran out of rope. They needed to spend upwards of $20 million togo national. Otherwise it's like throwing one hook in the ocean and hoping that you're going to catch a whale. They just didn't have the guts to go for it, even though it was going to work. At the same time, they just stopped innovating and didn't have any products to launch. So I moved on and went back into advertising.

John Bukowinski:

The creative process is a strange beast. How do you tame yours?

David Swope:

I love the creative process. My motto is "BeTeflon," because advertising is all about hearing rejection and getting past the word NO. "No, no, no, you can't do that. We've done this. We've tried that it's never going to work." Your partner doesn't like it. The account team doesn't like it. The client doesn't like it. The client's spouse doesn't like it. You're going to hear "no" all the time. You can't just take it personally. You have to be happy with just coming up with ideas.So don't marry your ideas — don't be totally wedded to them. Be flexible — even your client may have a good idea for tweaking something. If you listen to people, you might find good ideas come from unexpected places.

John Bukowinski:

Yeah. I like the idea that having the constraints of people saying no, it's like the discipline of facing constant rejection that leads to novel ideas and concepts.

David Swope:

If you want novel concepts, there's a story about a farmer who lets the cows out of the barn. You've got a bunch of cows out there, and the laziest ones are going to stop at the first grass that they come to. It's a chewed up cud. It's been maybe trampled on and it's muddy. It's been crapped on. And they're going to stop, and they're going to say,"Hey, this is good enough, I'll just stop here." The more adventurous cows go a little bit further and they're going to come to a little better grass that's fresher and a little tastier. The really adventurous cows are going togo out into the deep, deep grass where it's fresh and beautiful and delicious.And that's kind of like what you're looking for as a creative director. You need to give your cows time, and you've got to push them out there and let them get through all the crap that everybody's already come up with first. Then they'll get to the new stuff that nobody's seen.

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David Swope is a creative leader and collaborator who delivers innovative and emotionally-relevant advertising and content. He has 20+ years’ experience creating award-winning integrated campaigns for San Francisco’s biggest ad agencies, including McCann, Venables Bell, Eleven, AKQA, Hal Riney, BBDO and Digitas. As Executive Creative Director at TiVo, he led a rebranding and brought the TiVo Guy logo to life for the first time. Clients have included Toyota, McDonald’s, HP, Microsoft, Flex Your Power, Jelly Belly and various tech and pro-bono clients. His filmmaking skills include directing, shooting and editing doc-style films and branded content. In his “spare” time, he writes piano jazz, golfs and is a children’s author.

He also wrote and illustrated a children's book called The Spider King. Buy it on Amazon here

SwopeCreative.com

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