Creativity and the art of collaboration

There was a time when creatives hated everybody - account handlers and clients alike. Has that all changed, Andrew Cracknell asks.

Pour yourself a cocktail, light a cigarette, kick back and watch Steve Kloves' The Fabulous Baker Boys. While you're absorbed in a scintillating movie, you'll also see everything you need to understand about the relationship between the creative person and the account handler.

Beau and Jeff Bridges are the Baker brothers playing a two piano act on the hotel lounge circuit in Seattle. Beau, the older, is the less talented musician but married with two kids, taking his responsibilities very seriously. So he looks after the bookings, is nice to the insolent hotel managers, cloyingly respectful to the audiences and would play Feelings ten times a night if that's what the half-drunk, boorish punters wanted. Jeff is a brilliant pianist, the real talent in the act but a tortured jazz musician manque, his truculent behaviour on stage betraying his loathing of what he's asked to do. And he's openly contemptuous of his brother's attempts to keep the show on the road.

They're fused in a toxic symbiosis they powerfully resent, the conflict in their interlocked ambitions turning into personal antipathy.

Sound familiar?

Class divide

The account handler/creative relationship is nothing like as bad as the time when one of our noblest, quietest and most-awarded copywriters, always an ascetic man and now a poet, gained his criminal record for grievous bodily harm on an account man who'd failed to "sell" some copy. There are still pockets of contempt. As one of the older art directors says: "The sad thing about the passing of account men's braces is that there's no longer anything to string 'em up with!"

It has to be said that account handlers were usually much more generous towards their counterparts, even when anger would be totally justified. Jane O'Keeffe, now a headhunter at Liz H + Grime, tells of being ordered by a creative team to go and sell an ad for a product they knew the client didn't even make. No excuse for failure would be accepted. With admirable sang froid, she says: "When I went home that night, I did think it was a bit much."

But the major tension has largely disappeared. One reason, as Hamish Pringle, the IPA director-general, explains, is changing demographics: "The class divisions between the creative people and account people have diminished over time - in the 60s and 70s, there were leading creative talents who revelled in their working-class roots and gave the double-barrelled upper-class twits (as they saw them) in client service a really hard time."

But what's really calmed things down is the dismantling of the "Fortress Creative Department" philosophy, where creative people were physically and mentally excluded from the rest of the agency in anything from ivory towers to gilded cages to bear pits. If you're kept apart from people whose role can occasionally come into conflict with yours, that very isolation can fuel the antagonism.

And it's simply silly to deny that the roles are at times in conflict. Yes, of course we're all in this together and should all be pulling in the same direction, but that ignores not just the way the different personalities work but the way the industry works.

"As a creative, your career and your money is defined by winning awards - yet account management, they need to make sure the client is happy." This observation, from a mid-level team at one of our very best creative agencies, was made without contempt or cynicism. Indeed, as the conversation developed, they began to discuss whether their reward should be based on effectiveness rather than awards. There's grown-up. If you pay people on their award-winning ability, can you blame them if the entire focus of their professional life is concentrated on the type of account and creative work that makes that goal achievable - a focus that is not necessarily in the true interests of many clients and many agencies?

But perhaps there's a deeper-set gulf, expressed in an exquisitely written Advertising Age essay by Randall Rothenburg, the president and chief executive of the Interactive Advertising Bureau in the US.

In a retrospective of advertising in the 20th century, he was pondering why so many ad people he'd known had been so unhappy: "I came to call (it) the Contradiction. Here were people lucky enough to work in this 'genius' business, crafting what Marshall McLuhan called 'the richest and most faithful daily reflections that any society ever made of its entire range of activities', yet as often as not, they were miserable.

"Jim Durfee, a Carl Ally co-founder, explained it to me. 'A product,' Durfee said, 'is something that is moulded, produced, thought out and set out before the person: "We have made this for you, we think this will help." A service is hat-in-hand and through the side door. It was a completely different attitude toward what an agency was and what an agency made.'

"And that, quite simply, was it. The hate and love, the torture and genius, the job and the calling - the tension was all of a piece."

While Durfee was partially explaining the famed pride of the 60s Carl Ally agency, he could well have been describing a difference in the fundamental mutual perceptions of creative and account handlers. And never the twain shall meet.

But as Steve Henry, an H from HHCL, emphatically says: "Collaborative working processes have been introduced in creative arenas such as TV comedy shows and there is absolutely no point in saying: 'I wish we could turn the clock back.' Does anybody really think that we could maintain a CDP-like attitude to clients forever?"

You could quibble with the detail. Collaborative working hasn't been introduced in comedy shows; in the US that has always been the method, and here it's still teams of two or even one. And surely there's more to marketing communications than gag writing?

But his point is that there's more to marcoms now. Jane Geraghty, the managing director of Naked in London, now a multichannel full-service agency, points out: "Because the demands are potentially across so many channels, right from the start we're a far cry from the simplicity of 'let's just have a TV commercial and a trade ad to go with it'. That so easily lent itself to a simple linear development process. But now you have to have, at the start of the process, so many different people around the table."

So Henry is right. Sheer common sense dictates that cross-discipline cooperation is essential. But while we can't and shouldn't go back to the old CDP model, there are some who look at the quality of the work right now and worry if, in our headlong drive for peace, harmony and brotherly collaboration, we haven't thrown out the Renaissance to replace it with the cuckoo clock, to paraphrase Orson Welles in The Third Man.

Advertising by committee

There is a lot of questionable ideology around about methods of working, from job titles to architectural space. An earnest young man you meet at a party will tell you: "I work at a beyond communications pod called 'Yolk (Doubled)'. It's a synapse emporium. If we had titles, I'd be a Fusion Interlocutor." Half-an-hour later, emerging from the tedious and self-important jargon is a job description that would have been recognisable to an account executive at SH Benson in the 50s.

His entire agency will probably all sit at one long table - "like Mother" - and if they could, they'd do without a roof. Too constraining. He needs reminding, as do many modish organisations, that architectural space is only as good as the people who occupy it. For all its life, DDB/BMP has been stuck out in brooding Paddington, for many years in a dump of an office, yet most people would give their eye teeth for BMP's creative track record. As James Hamilton, a planner at McCann Erickson, observes puckishly: "Don Quixote, The Pilgrim's Progress and Our Lady Of The Flowers were all written in prison. Would Cervantes have been a better writer had he had access to teleconferencing technology or a breakout area with a pool table?"

But a good reason for embracing fully collaborative teams is the recognition that ideas can come from anywhere. "Yes, they can," Dave Trott says cautiously, "but who's going to decide if they're good ones?"

That's the biggest fear for the absolute quality of the creative work - the loss of single-mindedness and absolute brilliance when creative matters are dealt with by what amounts to a multi-disciplined committee. And here, in two startling interventions by very senior players in the industry, the role of clients is questioned.

"I'm really surprised at the comparative quality of UK clients against US," a senior account director returned two years ago from several years at two very different agencies in New York, says. "They're overpromoted and very poorly trained - and increasingly occupying positions of power within their agencies!"

"Pygmies!" another, even more senior player, says. "Because our large corporations are now in the hands of accountants who know little and care less about marketing, they've handed the game to untrained pygmies who make it up as they go along. This has always been the case to a certain extent, but the pygmies used to have bows and arrows - now they have guns."

The relevance is that part of the orthodoxy, ever since the advent of the tissue meeting, is to include not just the account handlers but the client in the creative development process. Henry, who at HHCL was one of the pioneers, advises: "Tissue meetings need to be used properly. In their purest form, you say to the client that they can't blow out any idea unless they can convince us that it would be totally hopeless to progress it. At their best, they lead clients on a journey of creativity - you start with ideas that answer the brief in more straight-line ways and then explore stuff that pushes further."

The client inclusion is now way beyond the tissue meeting and the concern is that these project groups are only as strong as their most vociferous members - and he who pays the piper calls the tune. So the client has become potentially even more powerful in the quality of the work. But why should that be a problem, when HHCL, which pioneered these methods, was so creatively strong it was Agency of the Decade? And followed in the next decade by Mother, working in similar ways?

A question of culture

"It's culture," Geraghty says. "I've got no problem with even the old CDP way of working, provided it makes sense for the project and it's operated by intelligent people. But the way we work is how we were set up to work because of the multichannel nature of our work, and our clients came to us with that understanding. The problem is trying to bolt one culture with radically different ways of working on to another existing culture."

Time and again, we see mediocre agencies make the mistake of hiring a much-awarded creative person as their executive creative director and expecting them to turn their agency into a D&AD favourite. You don't become Mother by aping Mother. You have to take a good long look at yourself and be honest about where you're starting from and realistically where you can expect to go. And, so often overlooked, why you want to go there at all.

If, for example, you're trying to instigate more open ways of working in an agency where client service is in the woodwork, it's highly likely that your work will become even more, not less, client dominated - unless you keep faith with a strong, empowered ECD whose judgment is sound and whose authority over the work is absolute.

"Picking the right idea is what creative directors should do," Henry wrote in a recent blog. But, as he says later in the piece: "Creative directors used to be the people who made a difference. Now they're just people who can be wheeled out for pitches to make small talk."

Without that singular editorial voice, you'll have creative and account handlers in peace and harmony, and wafts of incense will carry the contented singing of Kumbaya across the polished concrete workspace. But in all probability, no-one will notice your work.