The Creative Team taboo: who’s the better half?

By shutterstockchris / /

For all their ubiquity in agencies, creative teams are their own secret universe where very few outsiders are invited.

The rest of the agency sees the ideas, the outside world sees the finished work, but who inside the team was responsible for what? Who cracked the idea, the line, the execution? Only the team itself knows. Or do they?

Ask them independently and each half would claim the lion’s share of the credit, adding up to a combined contribution of around 160%. Nonsense of course. That’s just the human ego at play. And in reality, it’s impossible to measure objectively (or not, depending on which creative you’re talking to). But it does beg the question, can the rest of the world tell where the division of labour is?

It’s like when you scan the credits from awards shows. As you go down the list of ECDs, CDs, ACDs, ADs and CWs, it’s impossible to know the ratio of contribution. The alchemy is hidden behind closed doors, or more commonly in ‘breakout areas’, booths and artisan coffee shops, the evidence disguised in scamps and scrawl.

Maybe for some teams it’s obvious. For other teams, less so. Some pairings have vastly contrasting skill sets, where the quiet one has all the brainwaves and the brasher half comes into their own when it comes to presenting them.

I’ve often wondered how much the rest of the agency can read into my own creative partnership and the others in the agency. If they can, they never let on. They might have an inkling, but they never feel brave enough to share it.

Do they even care? Or can they see straight through us and we never even knew?

I’d also contend that it’s not easy for creatives to dissect the dynamic of another team either. Sometimes when creatives go on holiday and ad hoc partnerships spring up, the two parties get to sneak a look under the bonnet and appraise the individual. But by and large, what happens in the team stays in the team.

In creative reviews, note the use of the word “we” as the ideas are revealed. No clues to their provenance. Safety in numbers and a united front is the creative’s code.

In my creative partnership, we tend to present the ideas we each prefer, selling or chosen ones as best we can to gain advocates but publicly stating we love ALL our children equally. It can be competitive at times, but it keeps complacency at bay.

In truth, both partners have to feel a level of ownership or they just won’t give it the love it needs to be the best it can be. No creative like bringing up someone else’s idea.

We’ll have our favourites – sometimes we’ll even agree on them (a good sign) – but we’ll only reveal them if pressed.

The ambiguity can even extend into career reviews where your performance is reviewed as a team rather than individually. Is this because your boss really can’t see where one creative stops and the other begins? Or does it not matter – ‘it’s the output of the whole that counts’.

On my head the distinction is easy – if you liked the idea, it was mine; if you didn’t, it wasn’t.

So whereas the mysteries of a team’s dynamic will remain enigmatically hidden (we’d like to think) there are undoubtedly recurring types of team I’m sure we’ve all come across. These are a few I can think of. Feel free to add your own in the comments.

This team believes their own hype. One 60-second TV epic under their belt (that owed much to the CD and the director) and they are the new gods of Adland.

Constantly arguing and never able to agree on anything, you wonder how they can stand to spend every working day in each others miserable company.

The introvert and the extrovert. While the latter is first to the bar to get them in, the other one works to live and seems unable to stand the people or the work, trapped as they are by their mortgage and inability to land a book deal.

The ‘enfants terribles’ whose ideas are so ‘out there’, uncompromising and creative they won’t get an idea past a client in years.

This team is forever buffing their portfolio site and networking in the hope of jumping ship. “Everything’s shit here. The CD’s shit, the client’s shit, the work’s shit. They tell of clandestine meetings with ECDs which sadly come to nothing. In reality, they’re usually the last team to leave.

The safe hands – often freelance – who can be relied on to crack a brief, especially the tricky global ones that won’t ever trouble the juries. About 15 years older than all the other teams, they’ll either keep to themselves or tell tales of what it was like to work under Trotty, Trev, or St David of Marylebone.

The career freelancers who are so well-connected they can afford to take all of August off every year. Even though they’re hired help, they still manage to land the cream of the briefs and buy their own award dinner tickets so they can collect their focus in person.

They’ve been tucked away in a WPP agency for so long they’re part of the furniture. They’ve seen two office moves and countless ECDs in their time. Too set in their ways to move, they’re also way too extensive to get rid of.

This team scored at Cannes with their first ever campaign, were ‘Faces To Watch’ and secured a lucrative move of the back of it. Whatever why wrong, the magic never clicked again and their meteoric rise quickly turns into a long and slow decline, perhaps destined for a regional health agency.

Seemingly, they’ve worked everywhere with anecdotes galore for each agency and every CD. Two years here, 18 months there, they’ve been there and got the t-shirt (under a slightly shabby suit jacket paired with jeans).