THE CAMPAIGN ESSAY: Unshackling Creatives

campaignlive.co.uk, Friday, 31 October 2003 08:00AM

Gerry Moira, chairman of Publicis UK, argues that the creative pair system is an outdated stereotype offering poor value for money and reinforcing a client misconception that advertising is a craft, not concept, business.

I blame William Goldman. In 1969, he created the screen icons Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Not only did his highly romanticised account of these semi-legendary desperadoes start an entire genre of "buddy movies", but the pair, inadvertently, became the emotional archetype for the art director/copywriter model we have today.

The Paul Newman/Butch character personifies the self-image of the contemporary copywriter, the articulate one, the "Man with a Plan". Art directors see themselves more in the Robert Redford/Sundance persona, enigmatic, instinctive masters of hidden but lethal talent. They don't say much but they get to fuck all the women (see also bass players).

Of course, the pair system existed before Goldman's film, but we all recognise how his archetypes have become our stereotypes. Just as the Mexican army finally caught up with Butch and Sundance, I believe time has caught up with the art director/copywriter pair system.

Let's start with those anachronistic job titles. They are about as relevant to the modern communications industry as haberdasher and milliner are to contemporary fashion. Today's copywriters write less and less copy and art directors direct precious little art, if indeed they ever did.

More seriously, I believe these old-fashioned descriptors reinforce a growing client misconception that we are primarily in the craft business and not the concept business. It positions agency creatives further away from the high-value, paradigm-shifting, brand-building end of the communications process and closer to the executional "we couldn't get Fredrik Bond, but we got his director of photography" end. This is not good. This demeans what the best creative people contribute to a client's business. Of course, we don't want stupid, ugly ads stinking up the screen, but with our world-beating production talent, largely made up of agency-trained personnel, that's hardly likely, is it?

In all the years I've contributed to Private View, I've come across some dumb ads, but this is rarely due to bad art direction or crap copy. Indeed, you could argue that our craft skills have been developed to a point somewhere beyond the consumer's appreciation or interest. Few advertisements today are badly made, too many are simply ill-conceived.

Our venerable awards schemes can actually exacerbate this problem. Clients are, I believe, genuinely bemused at the way D&AD, the British Television Advertising Awards, etc routinely reward craft skills over the big ideas that transform the way consumers see and value brands. Fcuk is only the most recent example of a campaign that changed its client's image and fortunes beyond recognition but, as yet, goes largely unrecognised at Grosvenor House and Olympia. Old industry titles and awards conspire to propagate the narrow definition of us as technicians, ad-makers, not brand builders.

We all know the creative department is the most reactionary part of our relatively reactionary business. If time travel would allow you to sit in an agency of 30 years ago, little (apart from the clothes and hair) would have fundamentally changed. Go back to a newsroom or TV studio of the same period and it would be unrecognisable. Just because the pair system has remained unchanged for so long doesn't mean it's the best way to produce creative ideas. Is advertising really any more "creative" after even 20 years of working this way? The answer is probably no. True, we don't see the most patronising kind of product demos, but creativity didn't kill off those turkeys, research did.

So the copywriter/art director model is executionally, not conceptually, orientated. In more than 20 years of being the universal creative modus operandi, we see no measurable improvement in our creative product. And it's expensive. Of course, two minds are sometimes better than one, but they're nearly always twice as expensive. Creative directors get poor value from the pair system. To hire at the £75,000 level of creative talent costs £150,000 because the talent insists on coming as a banded offer.

Wouldn't it be better to spend £100,000 on a top-level creative brain housed in one person?

Neither does talent come as standard: it may be a case of "great art director, shame about the copywriter" (or vice versa). Yet, however obvious the disparity, the team will invariably insist on being paid the same.

Many creative directors try to compensate by mixing up partners to form more equal or more interesting teams, but I think they're just rearranging deck chairs on the same doomed ship.

A further charge against the "buddy system", although I can't prove it, is that it discourages women. How many girls do you know who grew up dreaming of being one half of Starsky and Hutch? I could understand the copy/art split when TV spots, press and posters made up our entire creative palette, but creative channels are multiplying exponentially. I can understand the emotional and professional security of working with a permanent partner, someone to watch your back, a shoulder to cry on, someone to blame. The pressurised and competitive atmosphere of the conventional creative department is not for the faint-hearted, especially when you're just starting.

No-one could blame young creatives for travelling in pairs like the policemen on Kingsland Road. And unquestionably it helps to have someone to "bounce" your ideas off. But if two is good, why not three or ten?

Compare and contrast, if you will, the durability and success of shows such as Frasier, Friends, Will & Grace and The Simpsons, with our own fitful comedy output. For every inspired The Office, there's a whole schedule of sitcom slurry involving Robert Lindsay and Zoe Wanamaker. The US shows are written by teams of up to a dozen writers. The funniest people in Los Angeles are placed in a room and forced at huge-sums-of-cash-point to compete against each other to get their gags into the show. Writers who fail to get their lines into the shooting script three shows running are killed and eaten. It's tough but it works. That's why there's no dead time in any episode of Frasier or The Simpsons. That's why these shows stay fresh season after season.

I know it's fashionable to sneer at the shiny professionalism of a series like Friends, I too have a personal preference for the comedic shambles of UK product such as Spaced, but I think our clients want and deserve US-style standards and consistency behind their campaigns. After all, it probably costs more per screen second to make a Ford Focus commercial than an episode of Will & Grace. Which work do you think has received the greater creative input?

What's wrong, you stutter, with the old British model of two geezers sitting in a room in Soho with just an Olivetti 22 and a bottle of Johnnie Walker between them? Well, those geezers used to be Galton and Simpson or Clement and La Frenais, and talent like that doesn't tend to work in ad agencies. What's more, that kind of genius is hard to sustain. The Office only ran for two series because you can't suck that much humour out of one man and expect him to live. Given that agency writers and art directors are, generally speaking, not as "creative" as real writers and artists, I believe it's time to gang up on the problem and workshop the brief in big teams. These teams should be made up of people with original minds and big hearts, not just people who know how to make ads. Hey, why not go crazy and put the client in there as well? Oops! "I've only gone and said it."

The composition of the team can vary according to the creative opportunity and target market. If humour is considered to be an important dynamic in that market, get some professionally funny people in your team. God knows there are some lame jokes limping through the commercial breaks under the current pair system. Surely, a three-day cluster-fuck of consensual creativity has more potential than a three-week mini-pitch between paranoid pairs hunkered in their bunkers in some macho winner-takes-all competition?

Hillary Clinton once said: "It takes a village to raise a child." Well, it takes at least a small hamlet to produce a modern communications campaign.

We need to learn new techniques in ego management. We need to abandon our showreels as a method of keeping score.

Obviously the team's creative remit should go far beyond just advertising.

The team "owns" the idea and should delegate more of the executional functions. Let's encourage the para-creatives, the Mac designers and typographers to take more control of ad design. Let's restore to our TV producers the power to actually produce and not merely facilitate. We could even answer that old production company bitch about getting their director involved earlier in the process.

The purpose of this piece is to provoke, not prescribe. And I know some forward-thinking agencies are some way down this track. I've enjoyed working with every one of the talented art directors it's been my good fortune to partner and I don't pretend to have all the answers. Nor is it my intention to undermine advertising creatives. I think their contribution is currently under-rated and undersold. I want to see more creative people at the fat end of our business and not earning the thin end of the available wedge.

The big challenges in terms of creative content provision have yet to really kick in. But, if we're to respond to them, I believe the pair system is an inadequate and inflexible model. It's become a given, an orthodoxy and our business should be about challenging the status quo and not perpetuating it. Our transition from being "companies with creative departments" to becoming "creative companies" is long overdue. It's showdown time between two knackered desperadoes and the posse. My money's on the posse.

OLD-FASHIONED NAMES

'Let's start with those anachronistic job titles. They are about as relevant to the modern communications industry as haberdasher and milliner are to contemporary fashion'

THE WRONG REWARDS

'Clients are, I believe, bemused at the way D&AD, the BTAA, etc routinely reward craft skills over the big ideas that transform the way consumers see and value brands'

TWO HEADS COST MORE THAN ONE

'Creative directors get poor value from the pair system. To hire at the £75,000 level of creative talent costs £150,000 because the talent insists on coming as a banded offer. Wouldn't it be better to spend £100,000 on a top-level creative brain housed in one person?'

CREATIVE AMBITION

'I want more creative people at the fat end of our business and not earning the thin end of the wedge'.

If you have an opinion on this or any other issue raised on Brand Republic, join the debate in the Forum here.

This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk

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