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Just the two of us: how creative duos are surviving remote working

Just the two of us: how creative duos are surviving remote working

The trials and tribulations of remote working are hard for most, but how has it been for creative duos separated by the pandemic? The Drum asks creative partners how they've kept the spark alive – despite not being in the same room.

In a typical year, the creative process, from pitch to campaign features layer upon layer of scamps, impassioned discussions, and copious cups of coffee - all within the confines of the office space.

However, this isn't a typical year, and since March most agencies have been working from home. So how have creative duos been coping, when they've been amputated from their other half by the pandemic? Can the work ever be as good when you're not in the same room?

The Drum talks to creative duos from VMLY&R, TBWA\Chiat\Day, Mischief @ No Fixed Address and Leo Burnett, to find out how they've been keeping their creative juices flowing during this time.

VMLY&R: Doug Fridlund and Mikael Alcock

Best known as the creative duo behind Audi's 'Clowns' campaign, Fridlund and Alcock joined VML&R from BBH just weeks before the UK went in lockdown. While working remotely, the pair have kept in touch via Microsoft Teams, swapped 'scamps' for 'Covid stamps', and are looking forward to getting back into the office.

When the office shut, did you expect to be working from home briefly, or did you prepare for the worst?

Well, it’s a funny thing, we joined VMLY&R just a month and a half before lockdown, so it was quite a quick introduction to the gang before we started working from home. We probably initially thought it would be a few weeks max, but the reality of the situation soon became clear.

How did you then adapt your process when you went into lockdown?

The main thing for us both was to make sure we could carve out a little office within our homes. Somewhere that clearly said ‘ok brain, time to switch on’.

Do you think your work is as good as when you’re in the same room? Why?

Good question. It can be at the same level, but we have to work harder at it. Being able to see each other's faces screw up when we suggest a crap idea can eat into time. (We favour teams without video as our mode of communication.)

What things can you just not recreate while working remotely?

Funnily enough, scamps have been tricky at times so we’ve developed Covid scamps... which are the same but shitter.

Can you talk me through your typical day working collaboratively, remotely?

We jump on a call about 9 to make a plan for the day, and for the most part, stay linked up as we tackle our various tasks. If we’re on a new brief we might go away separately for a bit to have some initial thoughts and then get back together for a brainstorm - much like we’d do in the office.

What practical methods have you employed to keep your ideas flowing, to maintain your partnership?

Just talking really. It’s always been the key to an effective partnership. The only difference is we’re now a 'Microsoft Team'.

Have there been certain practices you’ve adopted during this time that you would apply when things go back to ‘normal’?

There may end up being a lot more jogging bottoms worn around the office once we’re back.

Do you now feel 7 months down the line?

We’ve accepted the new normal, but some of the novelty has started to wear off and we are looking forward to getting back to the office. Until that time though, you’ve just got to look at the positives.

Have you managed to get yourselves physically together during this time?

Yes, we’ve been into the office a couple of times since they started a desk booking system. It was just like old times, but with more hand sanitizer.

Mischief @ No Fixed Address: Bianca Guimaraes and Kevin Mulroy

In June, Guimaraes and Mulroy followed their colleague Greg Hahn from BBDO New York to Mischief. Hahn had opened the first US-based extension of Toronto-based agency, NFA in the middle of the pandemic, and the pair swiftly got onboard. When they're not seeking inspiration from Guimaraes towel rack, the pair keep in constant contact... even if its in silence.

When the office shut, did you expect to be working from home briefly, or did you prepare for the worst?

We thought it would be temporary. We were at our former agency at the time and all our stuff was there. We had no idea we’d be out of the office for so long nor that we wouldn’t be going back to that office at all. About a month into Mischief, we both got boxes full of our ad awards, brand tchotchkes and loose change sent to us. Neither of our spouses (who are both in advertising) were impressed.

Ps. Bianca likes to think that Kevin knew about it all because of his strategic move to a house in the suburbs right before the pandemic hit. She’s constantly reminded of that by the obnoxious bird-chirping in the background of their calls.

How did you then adapt your process when you went into lockdown?

We gab on speakerphone for hours like 7th graders, between Zoom meetings. All-day. At night we speak in two-hour chunks, much of it in total silence. Being comfortable with that plays a big role in actual work getting done.

Do you think your work is as good as when you’re in the same room? Why?

For us, yes. Because we stare all over the room when we work together anyway. You can hear a good idea as well as you can see it.

What things can you just not recreate while working remotely?

Putting all the work on the wall during a pitch. It’s just so much easier to visualize a presentation that way. Also, the impromptu conversations in between meetings sometimes remove the need to have the actual meeting.

Can you talk me through your typical day working collaboratively, remotely.

Off-camera Zoom, on-camera Zoom, shower (time permitting), speakerphone, mute to pee, Zoom, Zoom, Zoom, Zoom, speakerphone, mute to pee, bed.

What practical methods have you employed to keep your ideas flowing, to maintain your partnership?

Even though we’re working from home, we try to change our scenery a bit. We’ll eventually move around to different areas of the house. Like Bianca’s bathroom. Her towel rack is very inspiring.

Have there been certain practices you’ve adopted during this time that you would apply when things go back to ‘normal’?

Not needing to go to the office every day of the week.

Have you managed to get yourselves physically together during this time?

Weirdly, no. We started at an agency having never met 90% of the agency in person. We have no idea what kind of shoes anyone wears, which is kind of refreshing. Except for Greg Hahn’s clogs. We know all about those.

Leo Burnett: Andrew Long and James Millers

Co-creative directors at Leo Burnett, Long and Millers, joined the Publicis-owned agency from MullenLowe London. They're best known for their work for McDonald's. They got playful over lockdown, using their Apple watches as walkie-talkies, and now feel this year has proven how close they really are.

When the office shut, did you expect to be working from home briefly, or did you prepare for the worst?

Like everyone I think, we expected to be back in the office a few weeks later – but it didn’t take long for it to feel perfectly normal either.

How did you then adapt your process when you went into lockdown?

We’ve been working together for years, so it’s easy for us to speak openly over any channel. What was harder, is maintaining positive relationships with the creative teams we oversee. We’ve tried to make an effort to schedule check-ins as much as possible, mix things up with Zoom, phone calls, in-person occasionally. And we have more WhatsApp groups on our phone than we know what to do with now!

What practical methods have you employed to keep your ideas flowing, to maintain your partnership?

We’ve tried pretty much everything. From leaving Zoom on, which can be awkward if you forget for a second. To using our watches as walkie-talkies, which essentially turned us into giggling kids saying the word ‘over’ after every message and using code names instead of our real names. Needless to say, we sacked that off. In the end, we just keep it simple, catch up on video calls at the start of important days, and then try to communicate who is doing what and when the rest of the time.

What things can you just not recreate while working remotely?

It doesn’t feel like any of the emotional extremes are anywhere near as common remotely. It’s rare that you’re on the floor laughing over Zoom, or you’re arguing until you’re blue in the face, or you’re just sat in silence waiting. Basically, the extremes that are sometimes necessary for brilliant work to be born. Not always, but once in a while, that’s what it takes. And that’s what we miss.

How do you now feel 7 months down the line?

This time has proven how close we are to each other, and how close Leo Burnett is as a whole. We’ve pitched and won, we’ve done brilliant work both ourselves and our clients are proud of– work that might never have existed without this period. We’ve had fun. And we’ve made it happen. We do miss the day-to-day buzz of the office, but we try to get in at least once a week to check in with people, and it’s always lovely to see different faces. Hopefully, this time will eventually help re-define how we work long term. Neither of us will miss working from the kitchen table, but the new sense of possibility is extremely exciting.

TBWA\Chiat\Day: Julia Neumann and Amy Ferguson

Both Neumann and Ferguson joined TBWA\Chiat\Day New York back in 2018 from MullenLowe New York, where they rose to prominence after flexing their creative muscles on the JetBlue account – culminating in the viral ’FlyBabies’ Mother’s Day film. While they believe that good ideas are not tied to a physical location (like an office) and working remotely can sometimes be better, shooting remote is definitely worse. In fact, it’s the worst.

When the office shut, did you expect to be working from home briefly, or did you prepare for the worst?

We grabbed our laptops and said see you in two weeks. We had no idea what we were in for, and definitely did not prepare for this! But it is clearly our new reality and we’re trying to make the best of it. We’re all in the same boat after all. If I’d known I would’ve definitely taken more post-its.

How did you then adapt your process when you went into lockdown?

We’ve spent pretty much every workday together for the last six years so figuring out how to do what we do remote took some time. And we’re definitely still figuring this out. We’re adapting and evolving and trying new things constantly. We’ve also always been 'tack it to the wall people' and sadly we have not found a great virtual substitute. So we’ve gotten very good at looking at Google docs simultaneously, which is the next best thing.

Do you think your work is as good as when you’re in the same room? Why?

Yes, we’ve been able to put out some work we’re really proud of during this time. And I think a lot of that is due to our great working relationship and knowing each other so well. We have a shorthand and a mutual understanding that works remotely. It’s just not nearly as much fun.

Our most recent Taste and Refresh work for Mountain Dew is testament to our new l working model. Taste and Refresh work is the hard-selling, product-focused creative that’s sole purpose is to heighten your thirst and desire for a MTN Dew. It typically features close-ups of dripping condensation and beautiful chilly bottles sitting in ice. Working with a brand not afraid to break the rules, we saw an opportunity for MTN Dew to disrupt the typical Taste and Refresh conventions and push the limits creatively.

The resulting body of work (Garage Fridge, Garage Fridge full track and Every Time) acknowledges and even nods to these tried and true Taste and Refresh conventions but reinvents them in a wildly imaginative way. Partnering with the amazing Andreas Nilsson, his vision and taste really took this campaign to the next level. And we did it all without stepping foot on-set.

Good ideas are not tied to a physical location like an office. It’s just harder to get to the really great ones. The power of association and connections in real life is stronger. Subtle cues, such as if somebody else in the room starts to laugh at a script can give you the confidence to run with it.

What things can you just not recreate while working remotely?

1) Stepping into our boss's office to surprise him and ask for a raise.

2) Stepping into our boss's office to ask for a better office.

3) Stepping into our boss's office to ask for more resources.

4) Stepping into our boss's office to tell him we can’t work on that pitch.

This pandemic has really worked out for our boss, I guess.

Can you talk me through your typical day working collaboratively, remotely?

We usually check in first thing quickly to go over any work we need to review or discuss the general schedule for the day. Sometimes we split up small stuff and decide who will look at what and who will cover which meetings. But we’ve always felt better together so when we both weigh-in, the work is stronger. We communicate a lot, reviewing most of the work collectively and discuss everything. Thank god we like each other.

What practical methods have you employed to keep your ideas flowing, to maintain your partnership?

Thankfully we know each other so well by now no matter what we get to good work fast. That in itself is the foundation of our partnership. We know we complement each other, and build and rely on each other. While the pandemic has certainly impacted how we work, the goal is the same. Nothing changes in the expectation, our relationship or final output.

Have there been certain practices you’ve adopted during this time that you would apply when things go back to ‘normal’?

Working remotely is sometimes better, however, shooting remote is definitely worse. In fact, it’s the worst. There’s nothing better than being together not only while it’s happening but also afterwards - feeling mission accomplished and getting dinner or drinks to discuss it all.

Closing your laptop and going to the fridge by yourself is not the same. (Neumann)

Have you managed to get yourselves physically together during this time?

We started having a couple of isolated client events and an occasional lunch here and there but other than that, no. It’s strange to work so closely with so many people and not actually see them.

I found out I was pregnant a few weeks before we went into quarantine so I’ve tried to be pretty careful. But we did get on a birthday lunch for Julia and it was so wonderful to see each other. We barely talked about work and just caught up on life.

Ogilvy: Danilo Boer and Marcos Kotlhar

In September, Danilo Boer and Marcos Kotlhar joined Ogilvy’s New York office as co-chief creative officers. Industry veterans, they previously partnered as executive creative directors at BBDO, where they ran a group that included 8 global brands, that included Bacardí, GE, Bombay Sapphire, Dewars, Cazadores, St. Germain, Macy’s and Foot Locker. Their ‘great working from home experiment’ has involved an oxygen tank, a heated greenhouse and building work families over Zoom.

When the office shut, did you expect to be working from home briefly, or did you prepare for the worst?

Danilo: Well, the first thing we did was to call our team on that night that Tom Hanks got Covid-19 and the NBA shut down and said: DON'T COME TO THE OFFICE.

But like most people, we thought it was going to be a few weeks. So, we didn't really prepare much beyond that. We both had newborns at home around that time, so our lives and apartments were already a mess. Considering: 'Where am I going to sit while using our laptop,' was the least of our worries.

When it comes to preparing for the worst, I did buy an Oxygen tank on Amazon because I was afraid of not having a ventilator available. I was mostly preparing to survive then being able to Zoom. Later I realized that upgrading my router was actually the more important thing to do and that operating an Oxygen tank is harder than people think.

How did you then adapt your process when you went into lockdown?

Marcos: The bulk of our process didn’t require much adapting. We were basically in back to back calls all day so shifting that to Zoom was no big deal. What soon became a big deal was not being able to interact with our teams the way we normally do. We have a very tight team and constant impromptu check-ins to troubleshoot or just to catch-up played a huge role in building our culture. Interactions quickly became transactional and limited to your slot on Zoom.

We tried Zoom 'happy hours' but they sort of suck and its just a terrible replacement for the real thing. So we made an effort to check in on people either via text or phone call. Just being able to spend a few mins with everyone talking about work or just the madness in the world, became an important way to maintain the culture and the bond between the team during this time.

In more practical terms, I have been working on a make-shift desk for 8 months. My home office was converted into a nursery before the pandemic so I had to improvise. Now that time has passed and my toddler is getting very mobile, working in the living room has become impossible. So, as a resilient New Yorker, I am test driving a tiny greenhouse I built on my terrace with a powerful heater to keep me alive. Still too soon to call if this is a hit or miss but in the current state of the world working out of a 5x7” greenhouse seems perfectly normal and quite romantic – at least in theory.

Do you think your work is as good as when you’re in the same room? Why?

Danilo: Well, last time we worked in the same room we were at BBDO. And we were doing the best work of our lives. But we did the strangest and most courageous thing ever and started a new bigger job at Ogilvy halfway through the pandemic, and we have been mostly meeting hundreds of new people every day. So, it's a little hard to compare.

All we can say is we are really impressed by how we have been able to build extremely strong relationships already with people we never saw in person. We are starting to build our work family, over Zoom, and it feels nice. I hope they are all real and this is not an episode of Catfish.

What things can you just not recreate while working remotely?

Marcos: I think the most critical part has been production... especially film. We’ve done a couple of remote shoots and you have to prep everything 10 times over to make sure you’re getting what you need. And still, the nuances that you get and last minute things you’re able to push for or solve is just not possible when you’re experiencing everything on a remote feed. More than ever the production partner you choose is critical. You need people you know will be collaborative and I can see a trend of creatives defaulting to their go-to partners as opposed to experimenting with a new director.

There’s also agility and effortlessness to problem-solving when you can all just get into a room and talk things out that is harder to recreate remotely. You can still get things done and the outcome is the same but the way to get there is a lot clunkier.

The other thing is recreating the clean separation between work and life. I never thought I would miss the packed train in the morning, but the simple act of commuting back home helped the brain to switch off and go into a different mode. Now we’re on all the time and everyone is exhausted.

Can you talk me through your typical day working collaboratively, remotely?

Danilo: For so many years we sat in front of each other and discussed everything together. This now has been replaced by a constant and infinite stream of Zooms and texts.

Every day we have meetings pretty much non-stop from 8am to 8pm. An infinitude of people to meet, new clients to work with and processes to learn. When we get a tiny break in the Zooms, we text about what happened in the Zooms. At night we text about what we felt about the daily texts and Zooms. And then we wake up and text some more and prepare for our first daily Zoom.

What practical methods have you employed to keep your ideas flowing, to maintain your partnership?

Marcos: We’ve been more in constant contact than ever. First text before breakfast and the last one is usually at some unhealthy time. Overrevving on texts helps simulate the feeling of being together in the same room all day long, the stream of constant messages keeps things spontaneous and ideas flowing.

Have there been certain practices you’ve adopted during this time that you would apply when things go back to ‘normal’?

Danilo: The other day I read a tweet that said... “when Covid-19 is over” which is starting to have the same energy as when people say, “when I win the lottery”. That’s it. We don’t know anything. We don't know when things will go back to ‘normal’, or what ‘normal’ will be. So I try not to think about that. All I know is humans took over the planet because we are so good at adapting, and we will adapt again and again and again. When things change, I will see if anything will be adopted. Hope the restaurant tables on the street became a thing though. That was nice.

Have you managed to get yourselves physically together during this time?

Marcos: Yes, recently we’ve been going to the agency every Monday and it’s been fantastic. Never thought I would look forward to Mondays. It helps to create a clear break in the week and organizes our heads.

We also both have 11-month-old babies at home so it’s nice to take a break from the daycare center that has become our homes.

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