The necessary demise of the creative team

Bill Bernbach came up with a great idea in the 50s: to pair up words with pictures. But as our industry has changed so much since then, why has this set-up remained the same, Jonathan Burley asks.

If you always do what you always did, you’ll always get what you always got
-Albert Einstein

A troubling love letter to Jim Bolton

Let me begin with one simple, inarguable fact: I love Jim Bolton. Not in a dirty, sexy way, mind – oh my good Christ, can you imagine the Lovecraftian horror of our coupling? – but I have known the man for nearly a quarter-of-a-century and he has been my dearest friend and creative partner for the past 12 years. 

He is the yin to my yang, the Eric to my Ernie, the shish to my kebab. We smoke the same delicious brand of cigarettes, watch the same Netflix boxsets, rage against the same idiotic politics. We both share a very white, very middle-aged appreciation of old-school hardcore hip-hop but actually prefer listening to The Rolling Stones or even (don’t tell anyone) Cat Stevens. The only two things we strongly disagree on are what is a sane amount of money to pay for a haircut and whether Miranda Hart is a comedy genius or about as amusing as final-stage pancreatic cancer. To all intents and purposes, we are, Jim and I, simpatico.


If delight and surprise are two of our most potent creative weapons as an industry, I reluctantly have to admit that, while Jim and I very often delight one another (no, not in a dirty, sexy way – we’ve already covered that), we perhaps rarely startle one another with an idea we’ve had. Not because we are dusty old farts who are a little bit shit at ads these days, but simply because I believe that the familiarity that develops between the two members of any creative team has a tendency to breed content. The many years they spend working together produce a very strong shared executional taste and an instinctive "one brain" shortcut to a creative solution.

And therein, I suggest, lies the issue.

Bernbach was a very long time ago

When William Bernbach had the clever idea in the late 50s of pairing up words with pictures, our advertising world was a very different place indeed, daddy-o. The reason why the art director and the copywriter had such defined roles in the first place was because the primary channel for advertising was print-based, and blurring the lines between the two disciplines was a proper act of ad genius. Two heads better than one and all that. More than half-a-century’s worth of wonderful ads ensued. Nice one, Bill. Good work.

But we have all moved on a wee bit since then, haven’t we? Much as I love a great poster or a clever press ad, I would confidently argue that the printed medium is no longer the primary, secondary or even tertiary creative product of any modern agency. Yes, we still make great posters. Yes, we still make clever press ads. We also still make fabulous TV  commercials (for those of you too young to be aware of such things, TV commercials are "content" but with far bigger budgets and seen by many, many more people) and even pretty decent radio ads when we can be arsed. 

But, additionally, we make hoverboards and glow-in-the-dark paint, LGBT burgers and dancing traffic lights, shark-unfriendly buoys and Christmas gravel gift bags. We make all kinds of cool shit, all the time, and very little of it would necessarily demand the traditional combined talents of a copywriter and an art director. So why do we persist with a creative team model that is nearly 60 years old? Why two creatives at all?

CHI & Partners created a hoverboard for a Lexus campaign

The abiding power of old John Hughes movies

In the 1985 coming-of-age movie The Breakfast Club, five American high-school archetypes – The Jock, The Princess, The Rebel, The Geek and The Freak – are thrown together during Saturday-morning detention and spend the rest of the movie bickering, smoking weed, generally pissing about and finally copping off with one another. I love this movie nearly as much as I love Jim, although my deep affection for it belies my age even more vividly than the increasing grey in my scruffy beard. 

There are many reasons for my fondness but, for the purposes of my argument, let’s pretend that one of them is the underlying theme of the movie – in-group bias. According to the psychologist David Myers (no, I don’t read books on psychology;  yes, I Wiki-ed the shit out of this), in-group bias is the tendency to favour one’s own group: "In high schools, students often form cliques – jocks, preppies, stoners, skaters, gangsters, freaks, geeks – and disparage those outside their group." 

The Breakfast Club, as well as featuring some horrific choreographed dancing scenes and a double dose of Simple Minds’ Don’t You (Forget About Me), is a narrative of what happens when representatives of five different cliques are forced together to create a new one. And it is this concept of forcing new cliques, with surprising, original trains of thought and unexpected behaviours, that excites me.

Break glass in case of mild ad emergency

A few years ago, I found myself faced with a looming pitch date and no creative route to present. The brief had pinballed its way through pretty much the entire creative department without joy and, with three days to go, Goldie’s increasingly regular "when are we going to see the work, hon?" e-mails were beginning to make me spin out. And so, out of sheer panic, I inadvertently called my first-ever Breakfast Club.

Early the next morning, five of us – myself, Jim, Dan Fisher, Rick Brim and Micky Tudor – got together in a nearby greasy spoon to gather around bacon sandwiches and the brief. Two hours later, we had (in my ever so ’umble) cracked it – not once, not twice, but four or five times over. Without the in-group bias of the traditional creative duo, without the stereotypy that comes with years of entrenched "one brain" shared executional taste, the ideas that came out of that disparate group were ambitious, vibrant and, above all, really very unexpected, indeed.

I had worried that this first Breakfast Club would be not dissimilar to a small, creative version of the dreaded advertising brainstorm, where every biffa in the room shouts out random ideas and sets of words that they hope will answer the client’s brief without making them look too stupid. 

What I hadn’t taken into account was the wonderful, straight-line selfishness of your typical advertising creative: their somewhat base desire to do nothing more than come up with an idea that will win them awards and get them a pay rise. As such, there is a delightful recklessness that comes when you put four or five creatives in a room, give them a couple of hours to get to their destination and take the brakes off, especially if you include the creative director as an airbag. No politics, no pressure, no "will they buy it?" – just the giddy joy of coming up with brilliant new ideas that no-one has done before.

We didn’t win the pitch. The work the client eventually did choose to run was unambitious, painfully dull and incredibly familiar… whatevs. No great loss. The real victory here was accidentally discovering a new way for my creative department to work together. 

We are all swingers now

Feeling perhaps just the tiniest bit Yoko about it all, at the beginning of this year I gathered my creative department together and informed them that I was breaking up their bands. The decision to dissolve so many long-standing creative relationships in order to create a more fluid, reactive and surprising creative department was not taken lightly but nonetheless had a strong feeling of inevitability about it. 

Over the past 18 months, we had been using the Breakfast Club format with increasing regularity – sometimes out of expedience but, more often than not, just for shits and giggles, for the sheer fun of gathering a random group of bright creatives around a problem and letting them slip the leash. And the teams were starting to form their own Breakfast Clubs without being asked. The only reason it took so long to formalise was because of the agonising amount of time I had to spend working out the mechanics of the new creative process with John Hodges, our head of creative services. I could share this new process with you, but you would quite reasonably want to hack off your own genitals from boredom if you had to read about it here. If you’re really truly interested to know about it, give Hodges a call… but don’t you dare yawn while he’s explaining it to you; he’s got fists like tinned hams and Cujo-like intolerance levels. 

I won’t try to claim that we are the first agency to try something like this; 18 Feet & Rising is an agency that has championed the idea of the creative single from the start, although I believe its methodology is somewhat different to ours. Its recently departed creative partner, Matt Keon, had a rather wonderful analogy for the difference between a traditional creative department and an agency consisting of creative individuals. He compared the former to a P&O cruise filled with old married couples finishing each others’ sentences before lapsing into a usually companionable but occasionally grumpy silence, and the latter to more of an 18-30 singles holiday, with everybody wildly shagging and falling over with sick on themselves from too many Jägerbombs (I paraphrase, a little). I can’t speak for you, but I know which department I’d rather work in.

Currently, we are all happily swinging away here at 7 Rathbone Street, and the many-partnered promiscuity of my newly reconfigured creative department is a delightful thing to witness. However, this is a way of working that suits our very particular restlessness and our very particular creative ambition, and I appreciate that it will not be to everyone’s taste – there will undoubtedly be many excellent creative teams who will think I’ve totally lost my shit in doing this. Fair dos; our new system requires a willingness to financially invest in a diverse creative department and a healthy disrespect for the way things have always been done. And I wouldn’t dream of suggesting that everyone should immediately follow my lead and part with their beloved Jims in favour of wanton creative gang-bangs. 

But if you do decide to stop doing what you always did, don’t be surprised if what you get back is quite, quite different to what you always got.

Jonathan Burley is the chief creative officer at CHI & Partners 

Anna Carpen, executive creative director, 18 Feet & Rising:

We have operated a creative singles policy since we began. The singles system is more similar to the traditional team way of working than most people think. The only difference is that we mix and match depending on the brief. Each creative person has a different skillset, so you can build a team specific to the task. You still form amazing bonds through pitch and production processes, yet nothing ever gets stale or boring. Creativity needs freshness, new energy and excitement. Yes, trust is important – but it can be found in other ways than having one set partner.

Tony Cullingham, lecturer, advertising course, West Herts College:

Every creative should be like John Lennon or Paul McCartney. Interesting, confident and accomplished on their own. Incredible and powerful when working in a team. Whether it’s working at a college or in the industry, creatives all need to find their Beatle.

The majority of ad agencies still recruit in teams. The class of 2013 comprised seven teams and a solo. They all got jobs and, after nearly three years in the business, they are still in their first jobs and still in their student teams.

At Watford, we train the students in teams. Two heads will always be better than one. I do think agencies should re-partner their creatives on a more regular basis. Teams can get complacent and comfortable far too easily, which leads to complacent, comfortable creative work.

Initially, we pair up creatives for each project. At any given time, they can find themselves working with three partners at the same time. It is all terribly confusing, which, in a weird way, is good. Feeling comfortable is anathema to creativity.

Paddy Fraser worked throughout the course on his own. He was incredibly smart. He used everyone on the course to bounce his ideas around. Effectively, he had 14 partners plus the tutors.

Eight years later, he is a creative director at Crispin Porter & Bogusky in Los Angeles.

I can see that, in the world of writing decks, programming and digital design, there is a growing need for solo creatives with specialist skills who can work as project teams when called upon.

For conceptualising and brainstorming your way to great ideas, you can’t beat the creative pair. The rational, wordy left-brainer and the scatty, visual right-brainer working beautifully in complete randomness.

For ideas, you can’t beat it. The question really is: do clients want the big idea?

The industry, sadly, is moving away from the big idea. So the creative team model is under pressure and under threat.

So long as there are jobs out there for teams, we’ll train our students up accordingly.

Richard Denney, executive creative director, MullenLowe London:

There’s power in pairs. One-to-one collaboration drives creative success. And the traditional creative partnership – which is, let’s face it, a "long-term relationship" – and the depth of understanding of each other can only build that success.  

Let’s use the recent British Arrows awards show for a point of view. 

Commercial of the Year for Currys PC World went to the exceptionally talented Mike Sutherland and Ant Nelson, a long-standing creative team who have produced award-winning work, year in, year out, since pairing up 17 years ago. 

Now, let me ask you this… would you split them up and mix them with new partners in the agency? I certainly wouldn’t. Their talent lies in their bond, their creative intimacy. 

Another big win of the night was for H&M. Once again, written by a team with history of success, Feargal Ballance and Patrick McClelland. And, yes, once again, the consistent magic from this pair shows. Wouldn’t split them up either. 

Dave Henderson and I have been together for 18 years. Now, at MullenLowe London, we can lead accounts individually, we run pitches separately – but we think it’s our partnership that keeps us strong.