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Why 'married' creative teams would do well to have a couple of affairs – Matt Keon, 18 Feet & Rising

In the latest in a series of extracts from Creative Circle magazine, Matt Keon, creative partner/founder, 18 Feet & Rising, looks at the question of 'married creative teams', and why they can sometimes be counter-productive when it comes to creativity.

Which is more exciting? A cruise ship full of old married couples or a hotel in Ibiza full of single men and women?

The analogy might not be perfect, but this was a question put to me recently in relation to ‘married’ creative teams versus single creatives. My answer was more in favour of singles working in different combinations and across different levels of experience. But it became clear that the argument needed some more analysis before drawing a complete conclusion. It’s not a new discussion, but one I think we should be having a lot more. To understand this, it may be useful to look at the idea of creative teams in a little more detail.

Teams made the most sense 100 years ago when the skill base matched the media output. Most agency creatives were writers trained in the craft of writing or visual artists trained in illustration. When put together, they produced print and poster campaigns with headlines and visuals. Most of the media at the time reinforced this creative match. One could argue that, over time, as media fragmented, it made less sense to keep these two craft-based individuals as teams but still expect them to deliver results against formats they were not trained to deliver against. However, even today, for the most part, agencies have kept the idea of the married creative pairing against myriad new and ever-changing outputs. What’s worse is that a whole generation watching Mad Men thinks this is definitely how it should work.

And who could blame them? The whole agency system supports this idea. From advertising colleges insisting people pair up, to agencies refusing to accept individuals who are not in a team. Even when I think back to my own foray into this world, I began by idolising the idea of the star team: Paul Belford & Nigel Roberts, Tony Davidson & Kim Papworth, Andy McLeod & Richard Flintham, Dave Dye & Sean Doyle (the list goes on).

But I also admired the work of individuals: Alex Bogusky, John Webster, Paul Arden, Neil French, Ari Merkin, Tom McElligott, Howard Gossage (more on him later). I couldn’t get work as an individual so I had to force myself to ‘team up’ just to get a job. I used to ask myself ‘was it the team or the individual that made the team?’. There is no real answer to that, other than the stars were all pretty great as individuals to begin with. One could argue that when joined to a married team, certain habits start to emerge. A common point of view is that the idea of a star team means the value of 1+1=3, that by being able to finish each other’s sentences has an alchemy that’s more than the sum of its parts. But, usually, this is a contextual moment in time and in the relationship, for example Lennon/ McCartney during the White Album.

The good thing for me is I’m starting to see more of these individuals pop up. In fact, if you’ve looked around lately, you’ve probably noticed the absence of any high-profile big-name teams. Those that are around seem to have disappeared into the background – some transitioning from star team to ECDs, others preferring to split up and do their own thing. It seems like the natural gravitational pull of the world is suggesting that teams may not be what they used to be.

In fact, I think that teams are facing more challenges than ever before. As greater pressure is placed on agencies for more transparency and contact with the creative product, it’s not so easy to hide in the corner office. Introduce the weak idea of crowd sourcing and the misguided notion that anyone can have an idea and you begin to wonder how anything gets done in teams anymore. When these new World pressures (and fads) are introduced into the department against an old world model (and a closed system) a lot of things start to happen.

Firstly, you get rapid defence from the old guard in protecting the mysterious idea of the team and a lament that it ain’t what it used to be. Then the selfish gene kicks in and the opposite of what you want happens: you start to get ‘in fighting’ and clawing for anything that legitimizes the fact that the team hasn’t worked on anything for six months. Productivity actually drops (or there is none at all) and the team breaks up, leaving you with more problems than when you started.

As a CD, it makes you think seriously again about hiring the same ‘type of team’. You hear more stories about teams divorcing (even though the creative community can sometimes be found quietly frowning upon those that propose divorce – a reaction presumably based on the insecure human condition to seek comfort and security in partnerships). And then, suddenly, there are actually less teams out there to think seriously about.

This idea of reappraising the traditional married team may seem extreme and a gimmick to a lot of people. But I believe it’s one of the most productive, exciting thoughts I’ve heard for a long time. Better outcomes, more shared spirit, more head hours thinking on clients’ business. It’s the kind of thinking that Howard ‘Luck’ Gossage employed when he got Tom Wolfe, Marshall McLuhan and a host of others to start thinking about problems. He believed in the practical magic of connection and the alchemy that occurs when people connect and do what people do – laugh, talk, share, and make shit happen. As one quote reveals: “Howard was always looking for like minded people to raise a little Hell – and do it in style.” It’s the kind of thinking that can be seen in the Bauhaus School, which had a constant stream of exciting outputs from a number of different people.

And it’s the kind of thinking that researchers like Andrew Pirola-Merlo and Leon Mann are investigating, studying and learning from.

Let’s be crystal clear here: my argument is not one against people working in a team structure, but one that questions the relevance of hiring, encouraging and promoting ‘married’ teams (those that ‘hire together stay together’) in today’s world. This is an important distinction as I am not saying I want people to work alone (I’ve seen the negative impact on business of the ego-centric lone wolf).

I’m not saying that individuals shouldn’t heavily specialise in a craft (craft is critical). Nor am I saying that if you only have teams, you are fucked (if you do, why not think about them working in different formations?). I’m suggesting that it may be more beneficial to have an open system within the creative department. That it is more effective to have a number of individuals working together in different combinations on each problem to garner better, more interesting results, than just two people (or several sets of two people) going it alone. Giving a brief to only a married creative team is like saying, ‘Okay, well the only answer for this client can come from these two people and them only for the entire time we have the business’.

I’m kind of like, fuck that, give me four or five hungry lions and see what they do. Bring in the whole pit crew and tell them we need something bigger and better. Bring six visionaries to the problem and watch them prove groupthink theorists wrong. If we look at the bigger picture, the output and potential is far more exciting than the rigidity enforced by a whole department of married teams.

And this is important because we need to step outside what we know to push this industry forward. To think beyond the department and how this affects the agency as a whole. Because working in set teams in part responds to the myth of creatives being sensitive creatures, where ideas are profoundly personal and fragile (and therefore only be carefully shared with one other you trust initially) we should look at finding mechanisms to help engineer a more fruitful process. While this thought is true on the former, they are profoundly personal and fragile, it is perhaps not on the latter – arguably, if the whole agency isn’t an environment that respects that, we’re kinda screwed as an industry.

So what could a possible pivot point look like?

One place to begin would be to get colleges promoting individual creativity with a wider skill base – polymaths – that then work together in different formations for different time periods. Teams could still be part of this programme with an emphasis on experimenting with other brains.

Similarly, agencies could widen their creative remit and start hiring individuals based on how they might add to the whole department by thinking in terms of ‘combinations’ rather than ‘set pieces’. Marriages can get stale. You have to let your teams have one or two affairs or visit the swingers’ club for ideas once in a while. Or better yet, let them go out and discover what it’s like to be single again…

This piece was originally published in Creative Circle magazine. The Drum has teamed up with Creative Circle to make some of the publication's content more widely available online. You can purchase a copy of the 2012 magazine here.

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