The new creatives wear suits and ties

Advertising agencies are at last daring to introduce clients to the designers, writes Richard Cook
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Indy Lifestyle Online
The artistic temperament has a lot to answer for. When Van Gogh cuts his ear off, that isn't the sad act of an unhappy man. Oh, no. Apparently it is nothing less than the tortured plea of an artist ploughing an insufferably lonely furrow; likewise when Byron sleeps with his sister or Coleridge does his bit to prop up British opium imports.

They are all artists, and as such they are almost expected to behave with scant consideration for the rules that confine the rest of society. If you or I try to behave a fraction as terribly, on the other hand, we soon find that this tortured artist defence holds rather less water.

It's a salutary lesson, but one, perversely enough, that advertising has been slow to learn. Its creative community of designers, artists and copywriters have enjoyed life in a privileged artistic ghetto for years, whether or not that was in the best interests of either career development or, ultimately, effective marketing.

"Ten years ago if a creative team came in to show their book and they had three heads, they were all covered in acne and they were wearing swimming trunks, it wouldn't much have mattered," laughs Chris O'Shea, joint creative director at the advertising agency Banks Hoggins O'Shea, "because in those days agencies were happy to let creative people cocoon themselves away in ivory towers. Increasingly we are looking for creativity from all aspects of the communications package and at the same time expecting creative people to want to help present their ideas to clients. And to do that they have to be relatively presentable and, more important, able to communicate their creative ideas."

Yet at one time, not so long ago, the louche ad agency creative and buttoned-up client were kept apart with the same sort of ferocity that a dinner party hostess might keep apart Richard Littlejohn and Andrea Dworkin. That is changing now, and because it is changing it is demanding a host of new and improved skills from people coming into the industry.

In the traditional agency set-up, the account handler serves as a buffer between the client and the design or creative team, presenting the creatives' ideas and doing his or her best to defend them when the client makes inevitable suggestions for a bigger logo here, a more prominent typeface there. And, in truth, this is a set-up that is still adhered to in many large companies, but its chief drawback - a lack of flexibility - is starting to cause many forward-thinking employers to rethink the roles.

"The industry has suffered horribly from the fact that creative people were removed from the realities of the sales and marketing functions, and that people were shepherded down particular unalterable tramlines in their careers," points out Richard Hammond, founder of the new advertising agency Spirit, "but I'm sure that the old traditional hierarchies are now breaking down. We have certainly set up this agency along those lines. We don't want people saying, 'Oh, that's a production problem', or, 'that's a media problem'. We want creativity to be everyone's responsibility, in every department."

To emphasise the point, there is only one job title at Spirit, that of the non-executive chairman, the author and Tory politician Michael Dobbs. Everyone else is expected to contribute creatively to the job in hand.

"I'd like to be able to claim we have developed a new way of working, but in fact we haven't," confesses Hammond. "What we've done is copy the sort of platform teams that have helped make Chrysler, for instance, the most effective car manufacturer in the world. Everyone here works together, whether they are sales, design, direct marketing or contract publishing."

It certainly challenges the flexibility of new entrants into the market, even if in the longer term this way of working should lead to greater career choice and more workplace options.

"I think one of the problems with courses for design and creative people is that they still don't really learn how to present their work to clients," explains O'Shea. "That is something that is now an important part of the creative process, and something which frees up account handlers from the role of glorified baggage handlers - simply taking other people's work off for approval with the client - into a more fulfilling, strategic role. They can become business partners rather than bag-carriers, just as the creatives can enjoy defending what they consider most important in their work."

For graduates looking to move into the glamorous and competitive world of advertising this shift in working practices has obvious implications, not least of which is the desirability of making sure that their skill base is as broad as possible.

"The distinction between the creative and account-handling side of the business is changing," agrees Jeremy Bohn, director at the recruitment specialists Management Personnel, "and that's leading to the creation of a new type of job that combines the traditional creative skills with an ability to interact with the client and to take suggestions on board. Of course, there will still always be companies that need a relationship- builder or a good salesman in a pure account-handling role, but overall this trend away from specialisation is definitely helping to broaden the market."

It's also providing a useful corrective to the romantic myth that only the truly badly behaved, only those people, in other words, whom ad agencies have striven for years to keep from going anywhere near the client, can in fact embark upon a useful dialogue with them. Changes nowadays can be negotiated that will benefit both parties and free the account-handlers to get on with creative, business-oriented work of their own. All that's needed is a little flexibility, as well as perhaps an entree into the right side of the business.

"It does still depend on the area of advertising we are talking about, in exactly how much crossover there is between the two functions," points out Stuart Newman, who is director of the recruitment firm Network Design. "Direct marketing and sales promotion agencies are still very much account- driven, and the designer still has to take a back seat, but elsewhere the lines of demarcation are coming down, and clients are starting to prefer talking direct to the people who created the image."