The death of Art Director/Copywriter teams

The business change digital and social is creating is amazing. We have seen businesses being decimated (e.g. Blockbuster being destroyed by Netflix), a revolution at an industry level (e.g. the music industry and iTunes) and new businesses are coming through yet again which are quickly dwarfing their traditional counterparts (Zynga is now valued at more than EA, Spotify is trying to but Warner Music while Groupon, a business founded at the end of 2008, is now preparing to IPO at a valuation of $25 billion).

Yet I still work in an industry that still seems to be rooted in an idea that was first established in the late 1950s – that of Art Director/Copywriter teams. This idea of a team was first introduced by Bill Bernbach when he realized that by getting Art Directors and Copywriters to work together, two heads being better than one, that you get better advertising. And boy did it work for DDB who created some of the most iconic work of that era:

However that was a time when the majority of the best creative was print based, in which the key skills required were that of copywriting and art direction. Let’s face it, things have changed significantly since then and the world has become far more complex – in order to produce a truly effective campaign you need a variety of skills depending on the concept. This may include an art director, copywriter, planner, technologist, UX specialist and/or social media specialist. You need a diversity of skills to deliver a brilliant piece of communication. The best creative I ever worked with, recognized this and would always find people in the agency he knew would help him find the best ideas – it also helped that he was not part of a team and recognized that he needed to partner with good people to get great ideas.

I wondered what some of my fellow authors on the Creative Social book, Digital Advertising: Past, Present, and Future, thought about the subject. Here is what they said:

Digital Advertising: Past, Present & Future – Art Director/Copywriter Teams from Edward Bishop on Vimeo.

While on the surface they seem to be saying that the art director/copywriter concept is not dead, if you listen to their words what they are actually saying is that the idea of the creative team is not dead, but it does not necessarily need be an art director/copywriter pairing? There is absolutely no doubt whatsoever that bouncing ideas of someone you have a good chemistry with, leads to better ideas and you do not need to be a creative to know this. Since I have been consulting, it is probably the thing I miss the most – having people around me I can bounce thoughts off and building on them to make them better.

I also do wonder whether Sam touches on something when he says ‘creatives are like insecure people, they need people to bounce their ideas off’. Certainly my experience with this blog is that creatives don’t like putting themselves out there and I wonder what the ratio is between planners and creatives who blog. Maybe the best creatives do need to find someone that they can really feed off and give them confidence in their ideas. Irrespective I do think we have moved into a world where we should be considering different pairings based on the specific brief – sometimes it might be a creative/technologist team? Or a creative/social media planner team? Or even a storytelling creative/digital creative team?

Steve Henry, co-founder of the legendary HHCL, concurs: “there’s certainly no need for traditional art/copy teams anymore. But the most important thing to do is to create a working process that genuinely supports creatives and creative ideas. Because creative ideas are, at the same time, the most valuable and the most fragile things in the process. The “2-person team” structure worked for a long time because 2 heads were more obstinate and more argumentative than one! Right now I tend to enjoy working in brain-storming teams of 5 – 10. No individual working structure is always right – but you have to think about giving the creatives an “unfair advantage” in the whole thing. In Chiat Day in the 80s, it was open plan and disciplines sat with other disciplines – except that Lee Clow insisted that the creatives sat near him. At HHCL, it was open plan and and disciplines sat with other disciplines – except that I insisted that the creatives had small offices. No practical reason – just to give them an unfair advantage psychologically.”

When reading how W&K has to adapt to become Creativity’s Agency of the year, it is interested to hear Susan Hoffman, Executive Creative Director, say the biggest change was the re-imagining of the creative team. She goes on to way that they started to unmoor creatives from single accounts and created a bullpen approach, whereby team leader could pull from a varied pool of talent, which might include a writer, a technologist, a media person or an interaction designer to create bespoke teams for each account. However the article then goes on to say that the executive creative directors say the pendulum is swinging back toward the dedicated team model although the bullpen has led to change in the composition in those teams.

How are the schools reacting?
But what about the talent coming through? Are the key schools reacting to these changes in the way that they are delivering talent?

Laura Jordan Bambach, Executive Director of LBi, believes not “Whether working in traditional teams, solo or with other discipline partners, being a creative in a digital and social world at any agency has a much bigger remit than it used to.

We expect our creatives to have the same media neutral view of their brands as their audience does. Advertising is only the tip of the iceberg and they must be able to throw themselves at everything from content programmes, PR, service design, customer service platforms and product development – and everything in between.

However most of the tutors and colleges are still simply delivering traditional teams whose portfolio hinges on some clever print executions, which is simply not enough. A college need to help students take conceptual leaps, embrace failure and play with the all the media at their disposal.”

Andy Sandoz, Creative Partner at Work Club, goes on to say “A university should not follow an industry. It should lead it. We need our students to be creatively restless and ahead of the curve. Otherwise what use are they when they graduate into a world that has already passed them by. The issue needs to be elevated above disciplines to the teaching of fundamentals. Questions. Experiments. Innovation. Taste, I think, is innate.”

Ale Lariu, EVP McCann NY, has already taken to this changing landscape and has been partnering with a creative technologist for over 6 months now. However she feels that the issue lies beyond just looking at the make-up of the creative team “Other areas are also still lagging behind when it comes to training future superstars. Take production, for example. It’s really hard to find talent that really understands the how to execute on digital.” To combat this SheSays US have developed a hands-on digital production course, where the teachers are award-winning professionals who still work in the industry, so, as Ale says “they ‘live’ what they are talking about.

However this does not mean that the copywriting skills and art direction skills are not important part of the mix and Dave Bedwood, Creative Partner at Leanmeanfightingmachine, goes as far to say it has been the one key missing ingredient in digital agencies:

“There can be no doubt that the creative team ‘mix’ has to evolve. Bernbach’s revolutionary change in the 50’s is certainly something we need today. This means we need creatives of all kinds of skill sets working together. Respecting these different skill sets is key to this.

But I’m afraid this is what has let digital down. The majority of creatives in digital are from a design or technology background, which is a different skill set to a creative team ( a creative team being a term used to describe two people bred to write ads for a traditional agency).

What a creative team of this kind bring to the table is being able to write, write ideas that are strategically and tonally bang on, but most importantly are succinct, insightful and memorable. Don’t worry about the media, these skills go to the core and are transferable.

The reason why the best teams can do that consistently is because, once they’ve graduated, on average, it takes over a year of crits and placements to get a job. During such time they write thousands of ads. An unbelievable learning experience, and a tough breeding ground which many never make it through. Out of the other end of this process comes the best writers.

But unfortunately over the last 10 years, the digital world has not embraced these people or really understood the difference between them, a designer, a programmer or creative technologist. In fact, what’s worse is that the last three, with a click of the fingers, often turn their hand to the writing job as well! That’s how much respect is afforded to it.

It’s this lack of writing talent, and knowledge of the job, that sees digital agencies losing ground to ATL agencies. Take the most lauded piece of this year, Old Spice, a great example of a mix of skills. Digitally on the button, but most importantly of all, it had writers that could nail a gag in a super fast time, about as old school as it gets.

So for us, along with all the other essential creative skills needed in digital, we still look to traditional skills for one of them. That then gives you the perfect blend.

Of course we want to see teams writing ideas in the latest media, if the products audience is there, that’s a given, but we are still very interested in people that can write a good poster. It takes a lot of talent to distill an idea, strategy, argument, in an image and eight words. If you can do that, the rest is a breeze.”

It is going to be extremely intriguing to find out what happens over the next few years. Personally, if I was hiring, I would be looking for more creatives who are versatile enough to work with a range of talent, depending on the brief, and one that realizes that it is all about getting to the best idea, irrespective of where it comes from. After all, as H. Truman said “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit”.

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  1. Oli says:

    I enjoyed that article. Thanks.

    Being in an advertising team is such a wonderful and unique thing, I always enjoy hearing people talk about it. I’m in a Copywriter Art-Director team. We’re not that strict about it. We actually find that it only really comes into play for the boring bits. If there’s re-touching over the other side of London I’ll say “You go, you’re the Art-Director” and if there’s long-copy about things being made from a single piece of aluminium then I’ll have to look up Aluminium on Wikipedia and get a thesaurus out.

    Also. Group brainstorms… Can we all just accept they are shit and awkward.

  2. Marc says:

    Great article. I agree with almost everything in it.

    In response to your tweet, YES I believe there are quite a few ad schools failing to properly prepare talent for the industry. Too many are trapped in the old-model way of thinking.

    Although I consider them to be competition (I selfishly want the best talent coming to my school) I am a massive fan of Hyper Island and Miami. They both clearly get it.

    If our job is to educate and develop the next generation of communicators, we need to find and nurture people with talent to communicate across media and mediums.

    But there is something that the creative teams say in your video interviews, without really saying it. The thing that separates good and bad communications is simply that good communications follows a 3-step process that generally supports small, collaborative teams;

    – It starts with insights that come from play, research, reflection and discussion
    – Then moves on to story telling
    – And ends up with collaborators finding ways to develop the story and tell it across media

    The thing that Bernbach realised was that these three steps flow better when people with different (but similar) mindsets come together. If you have ever heard Dave Trott talk about the left-brain, right-brain team then you will know what I mean.

    At our school, we think that there is still a bit of life in the Copywriter and Art Director team model. But that it is evolving very quickly. We think that there will be new agency roles in the very near future – in fact we were first to teach a nationally accredited course that helps students to become Ideapreneurs.

    But you know what? Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

  3. Good article!

    I find it mystifying how closed off the industry is to outsiders – the concept of having a creative partner is bizarre to most *normal* people, and its quite a barrier to getting into the industry. How many brilliant individuals have been turned away because they work alone, or have forced a bad partnership to function just to try and get into an agency?

    I’m studying advertising at the School of Communication Arts 2.0, a school thats reopened at a fascinating time for advertising. We are incredibly lucky to have had people like Steve Henry and Laura Jordan Bambach come in to mentor with us, and the entire course is (amongst other things) constantly seeking to answer two major questions;

    – What is advertising becoming
    – How can we go into the industry with a genuinely new perspective and set of skills

    We are supported by most of Londons major agencies, so we get to go in and have a look under the hood; meet the creatives, producers, planners, ECDs, suits, MDs, CDs and assorted others that make agencies tick. As well as that we meet innovators, business people and tech savvy geniuses – those who dip in and out of agency land. They all have their own opinions about the future – at first all those outlooks are exhausting, but the debate makes for a great education.

    I am incredibly proud of my school – because it is setting out to produce genuinely different ad grads, instead of just being an expensive portfolio polishing exercise.

    We are taught how to be account handlers – we pitch, we write briefs, we work with live clients.

    We are taught how to be planners – researching, constructing personas and analysing trends.

    We are taught about technology – how to build websites, create apps and use advanced applications.

    Above all we are taught how to make the most of our own creativity, and to engage intelligently with the changes the industry is going through. Sure we partner up, but only with the right person, and after gaining a good understanding of what we are individually capable of – and that seems like a pretty smart solution.

  4. I’m still kind of found by the big issues people seems to have with comparing digital to oldschool tv and print advertising. I don’t get why this is such a big issue, because in the end what Advertising is about is communication. Getting consumers aware of a product and then get them to buy it.
    The digital entrance is just a new opportunity to communicate in new ways, smarter ways. But we still need tv and print. The basic is to be smart in the way to use the ways to communicate.
    You still need a copywriter, you need an Artdirector and you need all the other people involved to understand the communication platform, to be able to use this in a smart way.
    Sometimes the industry seems stuck in an old fashion way as said, just because it was a smart move at the time.
    In the end the move was to put together people with different skills and approach to a subject.
    But these combinations is needed all the time, A carpenter to build the house and a plumber to get water to it.

    Someone invented the wheel and someone put a horse in front of it.

    The different minds discussing a subject is a key, this helps thinking outside each others own “box”.

  5. Cathy Schilling says:

    Art Director here. No women creatives were available to be interviewed? Now, that is antiquated.

  6. Anonymous Coward says:

    Great article, but…

    I do love how you’ve set out that, in your view, advertising creatives have skills beyond the comprehension or ability of mere designers, programmers and creative technologists.
    Skills like, oh, let’s see, a basic grasp of at least one human language, and having an imagination.

    There’s a reason the digital world hasn’t embraced people trying to come in from advertising. They’re usually halfwits.