The View From Our Dining Room
Updated: Feb 4
In the summer of 1996 before #WFH was a thing, our one-year-old twin girls were crawling underneath my legs, their four-year-old brother was running laps around the dinner table, and Ellen Considine and I were busily launching an ad agency from our dining room armoire. Ellen would handle the account side and I was to concentrate on creative. This was not entirely ludicrous to us; artists, designers, and writers often start with a blank page and imagine something that only feels inevitable once it’s completed. That can also apply to business.
By design, the Swart Advertising logo (based on a commemorative postage stamp) implied that our nascent firm had been around for years — the mark portrayed a 17th Century Dutch ship entering New Amsterdam Harbor, with the great metropolis the settlement would become looming in the background. This image resonated because I was born in Holland and New York International Airport was the point of entry to my adopted country. Our journey, symbolized by the old sailing ship, had just begun.
With a shared background in entertainment advertising, our goal was to imbue tune-in ads with movie poster production value; initially for shows like Xena: Warrior Princess and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. We called it “key art for television.”
Instead of bosses, we now had clients who depended on us. And thankfully, more work followed. We moved the business out of our home and into a building designed by Eric Lloyd Wright — yes, that architectural family! This unique pyramidal building inspired the creativity of the many talented art directors, designers and writers with whom we've worked.
At the start of the Millennium we rebranded as SwartAd with a simplified logo better suited to online. Our campaigns were often recognized for contributing to the success of brands and properties. By balancing evocative copy with elegant visuals, we won an unprecedented two Promax World Class Awards — for Universal Horror and The Alfred Hitchcock Centennial film collections — in the same competition. And I designed four more Oscar® posters and outdoor for the Academy. It was a heady time.
We said farewell to Xena on the cover of Variety and said hello to Jack Bauer with an award-winning campaign for 24. We also created advertising for other genres including the Western with a campaign for the TNT film Monte Walsh (starring Tom Selleck), which set a record for cable viewership.
Besides fiction, we designed key art for the feature documentary Steal a Pencil For Me, a true story of the Holocaust. Working with the filmmakers, we developed motifs from the poster to create the film’s main title sequence.
Seemingly unscathed by the dot-com bust earlier in the decade, I had been quoted in the Los Angeles Times, “LA is a great town for a creative person.” But a successful entrepreneur had gently warned me when we started the business that there would be good and bad times — I didn’t hear him. Then came the Great Recession.
Just Don't Go Away
In the challenging economic climate of the early 2010s, many entertainment advertising agencies closed their doors. Our unofficial slogan became “Just don’t go away.” Ellen expanded our digital capabilities. Leveraging experience telling stories through deft pairings of words and images, we designed websites across a range of industries, as well as weekly online ads for CBS — the brevity of our OOH messaging proved to be a good model.
Building on previous experience with CNN, SwartAd continued working in the news and information space with campaigns for the Southern California News Group. Informed by a hyper-local strategy, these print, outdoor, and radio ads expressed our belief in a vital, independent press — some earned Addy Awards.
Branding became more important to us, starting by freshening our own mark with an orange/gray color scheme and tagging it with a new mantra, “Creative. Thinking.” We created logos for national TV shows and a variety of businesses.
A side-hustle continues to be writing and teaching classes including “Entertainment Advertising Design” and “Design Thinking” at California State University, Northridge.
The classes are configured to help designers become better thinkers, and help non-designers effectively leverage design and conceptual communication in their professions.
Ellen (a former teacher) and I passionately believe in public education, so we enthusiastically developed a multi-platform campaign that positioned Los Angeles City College as “The City’s College.” LACC president Dr. Mary Gallagher kindly said, “SwartAd made us visible across the city.” Our LACC campaign is documented in a short film, Words & Pictures.
Back to the Future
Just as the pandemic was coming into focus, we were surprised to receive an Educational Advertising Award for last summer’s “My LACC” campaign, which spanned an entire city block. But the gold statuette already seemed like a souvenir of a distant time — the students depicted in our ads can’t be on campus now.
Ellen and I miss in-person contact with the talented people we work with. We miss being with clients and our adult children (who have all worked in our design studio at various times). Now the demarcations between personal and professional lives — always blurry for entrepreneurs — have been erased. Like so many across the planet, we’re rethinking our business model.
Navigating this uncharted territory requires a new approach. And also a renewed spirit, or rather, an old one. At SwartAd, that’s the start up spirit that launched the agency from our dining room in the first place. And while we’re not rebranding, we’re now thinking of the company as Swart Up. It's been said that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme. I thought that by looking back I might discover a path forward. I’ll let you know where it leads.
©2020 Alex Swart • All rights reserved