On the record - Rick Conrad

Tue 07th Feb, 2017

Posted by Staff

Interviewed by: Steve Brooks
Original interview: April 7, 2015

Rick Conrad, Creative Director, Abelson-Taylor

So let's go ahead and start. Is print dead? No, I don't think it's dead. I hope it's not dead, coming from a graphic design / photography background it's still one of my favorite things to look at and produce. I can tell you from the pharmaceutical industry, no. There are still a lot of clients doing print work, specifically sales aids, ads... So not in our world. Obviously digital has taken more of a presence. We've been working on... I would say half the projects we work on are digital and then the other ones are print-related. I don't think it's dead. Print might be dead, but from a photography and design standpoint I mean, I read all my magazines on iPads now. But all of that stuff is produced. It's not necessarily on paper but it has been produced for print, so I think it's just a different way to look at it.

Do you view photography as a technical craft or a creative craft? That's a good question. I always viewed it as a creative craft. I look at photographers, obviously, that are going to fit the particular client need, but at the same time a lot of those photographers look the same to me whether it's the way they do posts, or the way they shoot, or the way they frame up subjects, so I always look for something extra, which to me goes to the creative side of things, not the technical side. I think you have to have technical ability to do it right, just like illustration for example. You have to have the talent but what do they add is the question? I think that's the creative side.

Well, that leads to my next question. Can a photographer's portfolio illustrate the ability to "plus" an idea? Yeah, I think so. Quite a bit. That's what I look for in a portfolio. We have reps that come visit here, so you know, you've got six different books in front of you. Oftentimes none of them stand out. They are all good for technical work, but none of them are doing anything different from each other. So, when I see a book that stands out. That's what I'm looking for. That little extra oomph.

Do you think a photographer's personal work should have some commercial appeal? No, not necessarily. Again, if a photographer is looking for a gig for a client need, or an agency person perspective, I'd like to see both the stuff they've done commercially so I know it's going to fit in with what we're looking for but I would also like to see their personal work because it gives me an idea of that creativity part. Can they do something outside of what they are showing me outside of their commercial work. So, that's what I look for.

Would you ever show the personal work to the client or would you lean heavily towards their commercial work? If I felt like the personal work could help sell that person or help our idea plus their idea I would do it no problem. For sure.

Do you have any advice for photographers during creative calls? To me, less is more. They should remember that the reason they are on the phone is because we like their work. So they don't have to oversell themselves. It's like, That's why you're on the phone. I'll usually tell them, "I looked at your stuff and I think it is great." So, if they just ask the questions. What is the client looking for? Or strategically, if they show interest in what the idea is, where did the idea come from? Give me some background on the client, that's always good for me. Or the product. Because that means they want to know, not just about the technical part of it. "When are we shooting it? How many days? Are we going to use wardrobe?" or whatever it is. They want to get into it. They're part of the team at that point, strategically and creatively.

© Rick Conrad. Title: Birds. 8'x2': acrylic paint, spray paint and correction pen ink

Good stuff. What does a typical day look like for you? I take a nap on the couch. No. First thing's first. These days I review a lot of work. My job, and I always thought one of my fortes is plussing work. I come from a design background and a production background and I've done a fair amount of broadcast. I have a knack for if someone brings me something I can very quickly say, "This is great, but have you tried this?" Or, "If you move that there..." or "This director might do better there..." "This photographer might offer this." So these days I'm overseeing work and I'm plussing work. Really at an agency like this, using my past experience to help people. Because a lot of people haven't done broadcast, for example. Or they haven't done animation. A lot of people here have been here a long time and they are print-driven. We have lot of old-school designers here so it is design only. So when it comes to video projects a lot of people come to me to sort of learn and figure out how it works.

Do you have any daily routines you find important? Not really for work. I try to write something personally everyday. Something new, whether it is a song or a line or a lyric or a poem or a short story. Train time I will do that, or in a car. Lately I've tried to challenge myself to do something different I wouldn't do every day to change up my routine. Whether it's taking a different way to work or walking down a different path, so kind of the anti-routine is what I try to do.

What is the biggest change to the agency creative department that you've seen in the last ten years? Well, I think. I mean, it's an obvious answer but digital has changed a ton and it has changed a lot of things. First it was from print to websites, and then it was websites to different kind of websites. Websites 2.0. And now everything is mobile. IVA. We call them interactive visual aids. So we do a lot of work on the iPad, designing for the iPad and mobile at the same time. Responsive design. So I think people's mentalities had to change a ton because you're not only thinking about a stagnant design, you're thinking about how a person is going to use it, navigate it, and make it easy for them to follow. And then video too. I mean, obviously before it was all broadcast, high-level. Now everybody is shoots video and you have to think about content. Not just the print ad. But the commercial, and the website, and the videos that go on social media. It's a different mentality. That's the main thing.

Which leads to my next question. Does a campaign big idea need to work in all mediums? Yeah, I think now more than ever. I still think you start with the nugget. The big idea. If you have the big idea the test for it is, "does it work in all of those mediums?" And if it doesn't. If it's limited you throw it away and you go to the next big idea because it has to be able to translate across all of those mediums. Because that's what people want. I think other people think extension means that you just place that image in all of the mediums. It has to be changeable but still work in the overall strategy. So, you're not putting the same image in your print ad, and then the front page of your website, and the front page of your mobile site. They can change. They can be a different photo or a different message. They just need to fit in the same umbrella.

Was creativity part of your life from an early age? Yeah. Since I could remember I was making short films with my dad's camera with my cousins. I was the director and wardrobe person, and actor. And I always drew since I was four or five. So yeah, as long as I can remember.

Who were your mentors along the way?I did work with Mark Ricketts at my first gig as an in-house Art Director. He taught me a lot about being a "true creative person." He got me into designing, writing and illustrating comic books...he was a mentor early on.

© Rick Conrad. Title: Boom Box. 8'x2': acrylic paint, spray paint and correction pen ink

OK. So, where do you find inspiration now? I'm always surfing on the web. It's so much easier now. I sound like a curmudgeon, but back in the day you had to do some motherfuckin' work. You had to leave the house. You had to drive somewhere. You had to go to the used bookstore and find the shit you had to find. Now I can find it all on the web. Which is great, but sometimes I think it is better if you work at it a little more because you appreciate it a little more. But yeah, everywhere. I still read magazines on the iPad. I still watch film. The same things that influenced me before are just easier to find now.

Do you have any techniques that you use to get out of a creative rut? I don't. I don't call it a rut. If the timing isn't right and something isn't coming I'll just hit it later. You don't always have the time to do that, but I've never looked at it as a negative thing. It's just, "it's not coming right now. I'll give it an hour."

But does that happen, like some people feel like they have to work through this, or do you feel like it could happen at any possible time? Yeah, to me there's no off button. Not to sound pretentious, but if there is a campaign idea that I have to come up with and I am working on my own it's always with me no matter what I'm doing. So I might seem distant in a conversation or at lunch because the other half of me is thinking about that thing so... And I'm always, back in the day writing everything down and now it is in my phone. There are hundreds of pages of ideas that come to me. So I don't force it. It will come when it comes, generally.

How do you go about concepting your own personal projects? As I've gotten older and busier, I've had to sort of schedule that. When I get home I try not to get too much sleep because it gives me more time to do stuff. I need to stay up later to work on my own stuff. I don't like to wake up early so it usually happens at night. I try to force myself to do that daily. At least produce something personally.

Every day. Yeah. Usually it is in the form of writing, but sometimes I'll come home and play guitar for half an hour just to get a line down, or I still paint quite a bit so I will do that as well.

So, what are you doing now? I was in a two-piece punk sort of band. I ended that. I'm not going to start sort of a three-piece... not full electronic but something a little less loud because my ears are bleeding. And I started a new painting series. 8' by 2', so they are sort of long landscapes on plywood.

Do you have plans to exhibit that? That would be the hope, yeah. Not that I need to but it would be sort of nice to get it out there and show people. I'd like to get about 12 or 15 done.

And that's with with spray paint? Yeah, these are all spray paint and then illustration over the paintings. So not words. I know I've done some poetry, word stuff. This is more illustration over painting.

© Rick Conrad. Title: City. 8'x2': acrylic paint, spray paint and correction pen ink

How do you deal with self-doubt? I'll be honest with you, as I get older I don't have a lot. I truly think I don't give a fuck what people think. I think I used to say I didn't, but I did. Now I can honestly say that I don't. I'm more open to challenges now, it's like, give me something I haven't done before and I'll try it. I don't often do that, to be honest.

Does painting help you creatively in your commercial job or are they pretty separate? I consider them all creative and they all fulfill a creative need. If I'm super busy at work and I've been working on a shoot for let's say, two months, I'll probably do less music and less painting. But when I'm quieter at work I'll do more painting and more music. For me, it's a void that needs to be filled and it doesn't matter which vessel fulfills that. It could be any of those things. What was your question?

Does painting help you creatively in your commercial job? No, I wouldn't say it helps me with my job. It helps fill that void but not specifically in my work, no.

Gotcha. Do you have any advice on keeping work and life balance? To me, if you're truly a creative person you're going to have to figure that out on your own, because you're going to need to fill that void. As far as regular life, the non-creative part of it. It's just a job, man. After you've been doing it for a long time. I see young people all the time going, "I'm going to come in this weekend and finish that." And I want to say, "Don't do that. It's fine. We'll do it next week." Don't take yourself too seriously?

What are you listening to right now? Any new favorite bands? Yeah, I just downloaded something this morning. I'll have to look at the name. The same kind of stuff, alternative stuff. But lately I've been searching and I'm not finding much. Everything seems like it has been done before. But there is a band called Metz. It's a harder punk thing. I saw them in Austin and I like their records. Cloud Nothings is a cool little band. But I'll give you the name of this. It's a reissue by a Nigerian DJ. It's really cool stuff...

You've touched on this already, but any advice for the younger generation looking to get into the business? The advertising business or anything creative?

Graphic design or advertising. Yeah. Learn to draw. I know that seems like, there are so many portfolios I come across. Not that you're going to use it necessarily, but at places like this where I am working now there is a lot of old-school, because there are a lot of older people working here. The way they concept, they still put pencil to paper. I'll use my iPad, but I'm still drawing out my concepts as opposed to going right to Macs and doing Mac Comps. I like to see that progression. So when you bring your book in, show me how you got to where you are going. Show me the four steps. It started on this napkin, and then I put it on paper. Then I did a Mac thing, and then I finalized it on the Mac. So, I would say learn to draw and be well-rounded. A lot of the books I see coming out are 98% digital, which is great because that is where the world is going, but here there is a lot of print. I want to see that you can draw a print ad. So, being well-rounded would be good advice.

Last question. Are you creatively satisfied? I would never say I have been creatively satisfied. Fully-creatively satisfied. Because I always wish that I didn't have to sleep so I could create more things. I've always viewed myself as a semi-lazy creative because I do a lot, but I feel like I could do so much more. I think in my career path, as a creative director, no. Because I don't do as much creative anymore. That's ok because I've done it for so many years. Generally yes, but not fully, no, if that makes sense.

One more question actually. It just popped into my head. What's the best campaign you ever concepted? Ever?

Ever. I did a campaign for a hospital in Savannah, GA. I hired 3 documentary photographers and utilized three SCAD student photographers. We had full access to the hospital - ER rooms, surgeries, etc. we shot over 30,000 photos over 3 days. We utilized the images for print and developed television spots with the stills with a top graphics house in New York city. It was intense and gratifying, one of my favorite projects.