Jim Miller for Art Talks
posted: July 8, 2008

Jim Miller, art director at
Serino Coyne, the top-of-the-line advertising agency for plays, producers and performing arts centers, didn't come to New York to make it on Broadway ... but he did anyway.

"When I was 11 or 12 years old I fell in love with comic books. I started off by copying comic book characters ... DC comics did a super realistic style of drawing, which intrigued me very much. In high school I got involved in the high school annual and all that kind of thing, and I went to school for a couple of years to study architecture at the University of New Mexico. My father had an architectural firm in Nevada, and his hope was that I would slip in and replace him someday. 

"My schooling was interrupted because I had to go into the service for a couple of years and when I got out, one of the architects who worked with my father knew about my drawing ability and said I ought to look into this place in Los Angeles, called the Art Center. I ended up going to the Art Center and just arbitrarily picked advertising design and J. Walter Thompson used to come out there and look at the graduating students and offered me a round-trip plane ticket and a night at the Roosevelt Hotel to come and interview with them.

"I had never been east of Ohio and I was blown away by New York. Not so much by the bigness of the city, but by the brownstones on Upper East Side; I felt like I was in a Bernie Fuchs painting! I told J. Walter Thompson I was really flattered that they'd offered me this opportunity, but since I’m here I’d like to look around at some other places. They said, 'Be our guest! We’re the biggest and the best in the world and if you want to look at other places go ahead.' I ended up at Kenyon & Eckhart because at the time they were looking for art oriented people to get into TV production and so I became an art director/producer on TV commercials; I would go from designing a storyboard to going out on the shoot and producing it and it was a great experience.

"I would work with the writer more times than not and we would kick it around and come up with an idea and I would sit down and storyboard it out. I loved film. I had no use for print. I thought print was amateur time. I traveled a lot and shot all over the world.

"I left my reel with a head hunter at one point and she called and said that Ogilvy & Mather were very interested in me. So I decided it’s time to move on and I accepted the position. I hadn’t been there three days when they put me on a plane to Chicago to meet with the Sears people, which was a big account of theirs. I went with the writer and the account executive and they were formulating what they needed for the upcoming year and it was all print. On the plane coming back I said to the account guys, 'I’ve never done a print ad in my life!' And he goes, 'Are you kidding us??' I panicked and I called a good friend of mine who was an excellent art director and did a lot of print and I spent the weekend with him learning what point sizes and picas meant.

"I was initially disappointed to be doing print, but then I really got into it and I grew to appreciate and understand it. After a while I decided to leave Ogilvy & Mather and I was freelancing a lot and I started my own art studio. Many, many moons ago I did a storyboard for Serino Coyne, when they were handling the show Grease and they continued to use me through the years and I got to know the principals, Nancy Coyne in and Matthew Serino, and we kind of became a thing and eventually they absconded me and talked me into coming over here.

"At that time it was automatic that any Broadway show was accompanied by a TV spot; that's not so true today because the media is so fragmented  that it’s everything now: it’s print, it's broadcast -- we do a lot of radio -- and email blasts, and a lot outdoor -- outdoor being buses and billboards around Times Square -- and subway posters. We still do television for a lot of shows, but it’s become very expensive.

"More times than not, we start the art development project for the show before there even is a show. We have five or six art directors and some writers and we all kind of go off and read the script and then we’ll have two or three internal meetings and put stuff up on the wall, and reject things and accept things and alter things and ultimately come up with a presentation that we’re comfortable with.

"With the advent of the computer you have clients now who look at your ideas and say, 'I don't like that font; send me the file and I'll put my own font in.' There's no mystique anymore, so the concept is the only advantage you have.

"Sometimes it's better to give them loose sketches. We did that recently for a musical: all we presented were loose sketches. We did about 20 sketches of just ideas, and it really works, because people don’t obsess on what font it is or what photo you've used. They just see the ideas, because you're not trying  to force an execution down their throat. I’ve even gone backwards: I’ll come up with something on computer and I’ll slip it under a tissue and trace it, and they say, 'Oh, we really like that!' and then the next week, I'll show them the computer version I started with.

"Still, when my ideas get shot down, I always feel wounded. Back in my Art Center days in school, I thought I was a hot shot and I could really draw. One time, an instructor gave us an assignment to do a travel poster for San Francisco and he said, 'I want it made out of torn and ripped paper.' So I spent the whole night carving and cutting this trolley car up and I thought, 'Man, this is so good!' But I'd misconstrued the assignment: it was to make it abstract and mine was like all perfect details. When everything was put up on the wall, he came along and the first thing he did was grab what I had done and throw it on the floor. It crushed me. And I still have the same reaction today. But there are those little rare moments where something really clicks and you are a big  hit and, as you know, it compensates to some degree.

"I think the highlight of my career was about ten years ago, when there were maybe eight Broadway musicals running and of the eight, five were ours from this agency and of the five, I had done three, and I was standing in Times Square and looking at them, and I thought, 'Wow, that’s pretty cool for a kid from Henderson, Nevada.'"