Advertising: a parting of Bernbach’s ways

With agencies looking to make savings, is the creative team for the chop? James McNulty thinks so

Are you working as one half of a creative team? Not for much longer, I believe. The creative team is a glorious institution. But it’s just too damn expensive for the world we’re in today. You may have noticed our clients hired these procurement dweebs, who have brutalised our margins. Plus the ad agency market is more over-supplied than ever; we’re actively competing to see who can charge the least.

Then there’s the greater churn of new campaigns. A long-running campaign – nowadays – lasts a year. And of course it’s more labour-intensive to produce a new cam­paign than a new execution to an existing campaign. Plus there’s the proliferation of media, which requires more time, which costs more money. We can pay people less – that’s a start – but it’s not enough. We have to find bigger cost savings. So who can we lose?

We certainly can’t do without the planners. Yes, I know some of the industry’s greatest ads, like VW Snow-plough and Hamlet Photo Booth were created before planning was invented.

And yes, I know that many creatives think planners are quite literally a waste of time. Dave Trott believes the intro­duction of planning has ‘infantilised’ the creative depart­ment, by taking away our respon­sibility for strategy. Tim Delaney agrees. He once told me he kept a single planner in his agency, purely in case any clients asked to meet one. But no. We can’t get rid of planning; the clients value it. End of.

What about account men? Well, there is a moment in any creative lunch ­(round about the time that the dessert wine is ordered) when we all decide we’re going to set up an agency together. And it won’t have account men.
For some agencies, this is more than just a drunken fantasy. Mother and Crispin Porter have already merged account handling with project management, and other agencies are going the same way.

But is this really such a money-saver? Someone has to talk to the clients and whatever that person’s job title is, someone needs to spend x amount of hours performing client service. And that need hasn’t
dimin­ished. If any­thing,

it’s increasing. So this is where it gets ugly, my friends. The meat on the bone, the next bit of fat in line for a trimming … is us.

The creative team is a marvellous system, certainly the best system I know of for producing advertising ideas. Since it was invented by Bill Bernbach over 50 years ago, it has swept the developed world. But it’s also a luxury that we may no longer be able to afford.

Yes, it’s much better working with a partner, from the quality-of-ideas point of view. And quality still matters. But clients are now also looking for quantity – more ideas, more quickly, and more cheaply.

And if we’re really honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that having two creatives means that, quite often, one of us can coast. Do we really need two creatives to sit in an edit suite? Do we really need two creatives in the grade?

When your partner goes on holiday, does the world come to an end? No. Does only half of the work get done? No. It all gets done.

And while having two people in the room is highly desirable in the idea-generation phase of the creative process, at other times it can be a handicap.

After we’ve had an idea bought, our job becomes about execution, ie making a series of creative decisions. And any form of decision-making is best carried out by one person alone.

There will still be a ‘second pair of eyes’ on everything, because there’ll still always be a creative director whose role is to look at everything.

And there may even be advantages to a solo system – creative directors will be able to ‘cast’ each brief much more accurately. For example, the brief to do an ad for a rugby sponsorship can go solely to the bloke in the department who truly loves rugby, and not to the bloke who truly loves rugby and also (point­lessly) to his partner who truly loves French films.

The Bernbach model of each brief going to a team consisting of one art director and one copywriter died some time ago anyway – most creative teams now have no art director or copywriter, but two ‘concept creators’ instead.

So why not go the whole hog, just re-name us ‘concept creators’, and have us work on our own.

There’s plenty of precedent for successful solo creatives, in fact many of the industry’s best practitioners have been individuals not team-players – think John Webster, Paul Arden, or in more recent times, Graham Fink, Paul Silburn, Nick Gill, Juan Cabral, Grant Parker, and whoever that Swedish guy at Fallon is.

I’ve heard that bbh is about to encourage more people to work on their own. Mother already has many creatives working alone, as do Fallon, and Goodby Silverstein.

So I’d say it looks highly likely to be the future of advertising.

Financially healthier, but a bit lonelier for us creatives, because we won’t have a friend sitting in our office.

Perhaps they’ll let us bring in dogs.

‘James McNulty’ is a creative at a leading London advert­ising agency

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