Legacy of the Bernbach curse

Since Bill Bernbach developed it, it has been heresy to doubt the validity of the creative pair, but, as Claire Beale writes, this view is changing. Here, top creatives discuss if the alternatives can work as well.

"Rules are what the artist breaks; the memorable never emerged from a formula." For a man who so cautioned against prescription, Bill Bernbach turns out to have been responsible for one of the ad industry's most enshrined dictates: that of the art director/copywriter team. Some say it's become the Bernbach Curse.

Lore has it that, pre-Bernbach, those charged with writing the words for an ad would anonymously slide their crafted copy under the door of the art department, where the artists would get to work illustrating the lines. Copywriters looked down on their art director counterparts but neither enjoyed the sort of status today's creative celebrities do.

Bernbach (a copywriter) developed a close working relationship with the legendary designer Paul Rand at William Weintraub in the 40s and the pair would visit galleries and museums in their lunch breaks and debate the benefits of a closer working relationship between their two disciplines.

By the time Bernbach landed at Grey in 1945, he was convinced that an equal and complementary pairing of copywriters and art directors was the best way to create great advertising. Later, putting the two disciplines together became a part of the legend and the legacy that was Doyle Dane Bernbach.

Half a century on and it's a core formula that many UK agencies (and the art colleges that help people them) still cling to - and an idea that was meant to free creatives from their one-dimensional grooves has become an industry dogma. It's helped give creatives their power-base, raise their status and focus on their work in a supportive environment. But it's also held back individual careers, and, according to some, smothered creative innovation. As Publicis' chairman, Gerry Moira, wrote in his Campaign Essay (31 October), "the pair system is an inadequate and inflexible model".

We asked four creative chiefs about their own experiences inside and outside the creative pairing system and what challenges it brings to managing a creative department. Tellingly, some of the solo creatives we asked to participate were just too damn busy.

LEON JAUME - executive creative director, WCRS

Creative relationships? They're like relationship relationships.

You always remember your first. A fellow Watford student, maybe. Tentatively, you exchange thoughts.

Thrilling nights of experimentation and discovery follow. The possibilities seem boundless.

But the real world is different. You feel drawn to someone new. Someone older. Someone with a job. Childish ads for fish food and unbreakable plates are replaced by mature thinking. You prosper and grow with your new partner. You produce your first creative babies.

You're as one. You think and act alike. You finish each other's sentences. Life seems good.

But then, almost imperceptibly, routine creeps in. You wonder if you committed yourself too young. You find you're starting each other's sentences.

You think back to that first walk together, at the Grosvenor House. But the magic is fading.

You try to fight it. Maybe you should move out of Central London like your friends and grow old together at AMV. But you're slipping. You start seeing other creatives, furtively, in pubs no-one goes to. One of them wants to see you again. Says you'd make great group heads together. You feel alive again. Wanted. Desired.

Finally, you crack. You tell your partner it isn't them, it's you. Of course it's you. You, you, you. You fight over custody of the reel.

Your new world is hollow. You're not the group head sort. You turn up at your ex's place, drunk, and suggest getting back together. But they tell you they've been with a placement for a month and are thinking of making it permanent.

Your descent into drugs, gyms and yoga is swift. You join a new-media group. But you're out of your depth. You can't handle the whole group thing. You leave for a fresh start in Melbourne with someone you met in a spa in Sri Lanka. It doesn't work. The loneliness and failure are crushing.

You return home. Shuffling through Soho, you bump into a shadowy figure.

Their muffled curse sounds familiar. Can it be? The years since Watford have been kind to neither of you. But you talk. How's the portfolio, you ask. Pretty much as you remember it, they say.

Let's give it another go, you say. We were always a great team. You resolve to try again. You'll ring Kendall Tarrant in the morning.

You're older. You're freelance. But you're a couple. The way you always wanted it.

DAMON COLLINS - creative director, Lowe

Good ideas are hard to come by.

Great ones are rarer than a Cannes winner that's actually run. So when it comes to the toughest part of the advertising process, anything goes.

If you get better ideas in a traditional "Bernbach pair", fine.

Maybe you prefer to gang-bang it. Well, whatever turns you on.

However we get ideas, all that matters is that we find what works for us and do it. I couldn't give a flying acronym-for-a-high-street-fashion-shop how my department gets ideas. Just that when they do they're abundant, of high quality and on time ...

What I find interesting, however, is the number of creative people choosing to work on their own. Individuals such as Jeremy Carr, Walter Campbell and our own Ed Morris and Vince Squibb are cracking the biggies on a regular basis.

And they're in good company. Over the years, quite a few admen have preferred to keep the office to themselves. From George Lois, to that bloke Ron something-or-other, who churned out nonsense such as "We knew how before you know who" and "It's a lot less bovver than a hover".

How would one categorise these creative hybrids?

The answer is, of course: "Who gives a toss?" They all were nominally art directors, but it is only the likes of D&AD and, yes, the organ you hold in your hands, that insist on referring to them by their traditional monikers.

And John Webster? What should we call him? Sir? ... Lord? ... His Holiness?

The days of admen as artisans are gone. At Lowe, we don't have art directors or copywriters. We have creative people. Some work in teams. Some work alone. But as long as they do the work, it works.

"Working alone" is a little misleading, however. Few of those mentioned above would deny needing the counsel of someone who's not afraid to call it how they see it. Even creative directors need creative directors. Let's be honest, some of the smelliest stuff on our screens can be credited to an ego left unchecked in the corner office. ("Hey, I'm the boss, so naturally I rock. I'll do this brief and because I'm the money, it'll be great.")

It's funny. When I took sole charge of the creative department in May, I thought that after 18 years of working with a partner I'd be a bit lonely in the office all by myself, 12 hours a day.

Hah. Fat chance. I have 72 account people, 28 planners, 51 creative people, not to mention the odd client and a barely sane South African bloke to keep me company.

CHARLES INGE - founder, Clemmow Hornby Inge

Six years ago, I moved out of my big office into the smallest office in the building. I no longer called myself an art director. I was "going it alone". Suddenly I was single and free. I bought clothes that were ten years too young for me. I bought a plane ticket to Stockholm and sat in the office of a small production company called Traktor and wrote a campaign for a beer. In the next few months, I wrote a campaign for Malibu in the bath (try doing that as a creative team). I wrote an ad for The Independent newspaper walking round Hyde Park. I directed an ad when the director accidentally "forgot" to put the funny scenes in. I was in charge of whom I talked to, what I wanted to do, who I took advice from. It was brilliant.

Through trial and error, I found the best way of working for me was to walk. Walk anywhere, oh and talk to myself. (It worked wonders keeping the nutters away.) I used to keep walking and talking until I'd had an idea. When the muse struck, I'd make a beeline for my office and whack it down on my computer. Some days I'd have no ideas, but at least I'd had a six-mile walk.

I used to joke that with spell check who needed a writer? But with my trusty laptop I can summon up every image, idea or phrase ever uttered.

I can find 56 ways to say "arse". I can draw visuals, retouch photos, choose typefaces and I've even got a key marked Prt Sc, which I'm sure if I pressed it would do another eleventy-million things.

Not for a moment would I say that the "creative team" has had its day.

But I would say that there is another option.

DAVE ALBERTS - executive creative director, Grey

I think it's a huge generalisation to say that the copywriter/art director model has or hasn't had its day. But if you look at the example of how we work at Grey, 70 per cent of my creative budget is dedicated to permanent staff. The other 30 per cent interact with one of our creative teams, or with single creatives, or whoever is necessary to complete the job.

There's a lot of creative talent in this industry that isn't fully employed as either an art director or a copywriter. Maybe it's because they don't have the relevant skill-set or aren't looking for full-time work. But when we have an idea, we look at what's the best way to make it work.

For one brief, we were collaborating with a directing team and we said to them: "Why don't you help us write this?" Another time, we called in 30 BBC comedy writers.

We like to build our teams around the ideas. Therefore, our creatives don't see themselves as art directors or copywriters, they see themselves as conceptualisers. For example, one of our best teams is a couple of design students. We've also paired a writer from Brazil with a guy who's a photographer and a sculptor. Then there's John Warwicker, my - freelance - partner. He's never worked in an ad agency in his life - he's a director, a typographer and a designer. He brings other perspectives and skill-sets to the brief.

Every month, we run a scheme called Friends of John in which we ask photographers, designers, musicians - anybody who collects culture - to send us a page on what's going on in their cities.

There's a definite skill-set that creatives need to have conceptual ideas and we certainly can't just throw that away. But you do have to look at what's the best way to bring ideas to life. Ideas are not the sole responsibility of the creative department. We structure planners, account men, whole teams around the idea for a brief. Clients are very receptive to this and it helps us produce solutions that are surprising.


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