Creating a Lean, Mean Ad Machine
If you've been to New York City lately and found yourself crossing the 59th Street Bridge, you're probably among the millions who have tapped the brakes long enough to gaze up at a 120-ft. tall John McEnroe staring down at you. No, it's not U.S. Open time. No, John's not pushing T-shirts or $200 tennis shoes. His message is simple: "Card Member Since '78."
Brought to you by Ogilvy & Mather (O&M), one of New York City's most renowned advertising firms, the massive billboard is just one of the many American Express images you'll encounter as you roam the city's streets.
Conception of a campaign
Conceived in 1998, O&M's American Express campaign consists of a variety of outdoor media, from taxi tops to building murals, to phone kiosks. Sizes range from poster-size ads to colossal billboards, like that of McEnroe.
For the campaign, 21 celebrity photos were shot, and Ogilvy's initial challenge was to find a way to work with the variety of photographic media submitted—
from 35mm transparencies to prints. The mixed media dictated that each image would require a varying degree of manipulation.
As the campaign began to take shape, it became obvious that the project would require a great deal of collaboration between the photographers and O&M's art directors, print producers and in-house retouching department.
Print Producer Don Hanson and Executive Print Producer Joseph Burke decided that the project would be better serviced in house: "Logistically, we would have better control over the entire process," states Hanson. However, one problem remained: To what resolution should the art be scanned, given the varying output sizes? If the files were large, retouching could become frightfully laborious.
In search of
In need of a solution to streamline production, O&M's Dominic Deleo, director of operations, Graphic Services, met with Dave Gibson, vice president of sales, Iterated Systems, Atlanta, and Dennis Aubrey, president, Altamira Group, Burbank, CA.
Altamira brought an interesting solution to the table—Genuine Fractals Pro, which, with Iterated's STiNG technology as its backbone, allows images to be compressed to manageable file sizes and repurposed individually, according to output. STiNG technology, with fractal mathematics at its core, allows images to be stored as resolution-independent assets. A STiNG file may be used for a variety of outputs, without the need for rescanning or multiple version storage.
Deleo and his colleagues were admittedly skeptical. "The proof was going to be in the pudding as to whether it was going to do what they said it was going to do," notes Deleo. But O&M took the leap of faith and began testing the desktop plug-in on several projects, including a U.S. Open bus wrap that required a 12 dpi output resolution. The image, recalls Deleo, was not resolute enough to output on O&M's large-format devices, so the file was "STuNG" and swelled to produce enough fractal for output. The result was encouraging.
From skepticism to adoption
"Like any other in-house studio, we're trying to produce high-quality work efficiently, while remaining profitable," explains Mitchell Geller, an O&M technology consultant, "and integrating a new piece of technology into an existing workflow requires time. We'd prefer spending that time on technology that is viable and adds value.
"Once we looked at the results," Geller continues, "we thought there was some real promise (in STiNG). Then, (this particular advertising campaign) showed up, and we were looking at files that were potentially a gigabyte!"
"And, if you've ever tried to work with a gigabyte file on the desktop," John Kinsella, retouching manager, adds with a laugh, "it is ridiculously time consuming. I don't pay the retouchers to watch the progress bar; I pay them to retouch."
The O&M team began to strategize and established the following workflow: "We'd get the images scanned, and then Digital Artist Franco Casas would work on the silhouetting. We had to give all these images some sort of conformity and silhouette them out of their (original) backgrounds, because they were all going to be (placed) into a new background."
The retouched images were then routed to Russell Cook, digital designer, who would lay out the final file. Quark documents were converted to Illustrator files, rasterized and merged in Photoshop.
"He would take the art director's comp and start building in the
(background)," Kinsella explains. "Then, he'd start building the actual mechanicals from the comp." Finally, he worked on type treatment and embossing effects.
During testing of Altamira's offering, Iterated again approached Deleo and his colleagues about the possibility of bringing in an NT-based, STiNG-driven client/server solution—STiNG reXpress.
To provide an example of the technology at work: a STiNG reXpress image may be placed into a standard layout page—a Quark document, for example
—and resolution is set for the intended output. Once the output device, such as a proofer or a Web-authoring application, is determined, reXpress reads the Quark tags and uses STiNG scaling to resize the image and establish the correct resolution parameters for output.
Burt Smith, vice president of marketing for Iterated, explains Iterated's intent for creating STiNG reXpress: "What we wanted to do was to change the workflow from the beginning, at the scanning stage. Images are scanned at medium resolution, and they are scanned for content, not output."
STiNG reXpress also solves another problem that many digital-workflow folks face: file transfer. STiNG files are reportedly reduced to one-third—in many cases, a fourth—of its original size, allowing for faster and cheaper file transfers.
"You can take a 60MB to 80MB file and STiNG it down to 30MBs," explains Iterated's Dave Gibson. Needless to say, smaller files are a heck of a lot easier to store and archive than bandwidth-hogging gigabyte monsters, a future concern for O&M, as the company begins to evaluate enterprise-wide, digital asset management programs.
While O&M was not particularly concerned with file archival and transmission for the Amex campaign, there were other issues that reXpress resolved.
"What remained problematic for us is that you had to work with a flat file in Photoshop until the reXpress server came along, which allows you to do layers in Photoshop," Kinsella explains. "In advertising, we want 27 layers. … Because of that, we wanted every possible variation of every conceivable layer to remain intact until someone signed off and we could flatten it.
"(With reXpress)," Kinsella adds, "they were able to work with physically smaller files. … So, I was able to move files through their desktop very quickly, at a size that they were able to work with, … until we had to STiNG it and swell it (a phrase coined by Kinsella) for the vendor at the end."
"Essentially, the workflow becomes leaner until you get to the very end," confirms Deleo. "In the time constraints we had, I really don't know if we would have been able to pull this thing off without being able to streamline the retouching and compositing (stages). More or less, the technology probably paid for itself during this job, just by decreasing the overhead required for movement, processing and storage."
The times are changing. As Deleo points out, agency production personnel find themselves under a whole new set of mandates in a digital production environment: "More and more, in a digital workflow, the agency's creative (people) and account teams expect things to change all the time, and it's the people at the end who need to produce it and make it happen."
-Gretchen A. Kirby