Goodbye garret, this is the Nineties

Lonely suffering is no longer the lot of the creative mind. Advertising has turned into a team game.
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The Independent Online
In the arts, you're supposed to suffer. If you haven't clocked up sufficient hard garret time, your credentials are not seen to be established, no matter how accomplished your work.

Even in adland, which seems to offer an attractive combination of commerce and creativity, the path to a promised land has always been a slog - years of touting a student book around the agencies, followed by endless, nerve- filled months of subsistence work experience.

But times change ... and not always for the better. Nowadays, for instance, garrets are aspirational - they are marketed as bijoux pieds-a-terre for the urban middle classes. And the journey to artistic fulfilment is no longer complete without the millstone of an enormous unpaid graduate loan about your neck.

The Watford College of Art, which runs respected copywriting and art direction courses for would-be advertising agency creatives, estimates that its average student will start his or her job-search around pounds 15,000 in debt. Not that this has deterred applicants - the course director, Tony Cullingham, received almost 700 inquiries for the 30 places he was offering last year.

But after everything, after the years of penury and hand-to-mouth, half- priced fun, the ad industry creative, at least in the old days, got to have some fun. Even if this fun wasn't necessarily connected with the job in hand. They got to keep irregular hours, grow all sorts of interesting facial hair, and pay scant regard to personal hygiene. They were, you see, creative, and mindful of the fact that the sober-suited business decisions were happening elsewhere in the agency. Their job was simply to create: others could handle the mundane things, such as presenting the idea to the client, or planning the campaign.

But times change ... and sometimes they do change for the better. "The bright, forward-thinking creatives have realised that the circumstances have altered. In fact they have welcomed that change," says Tim Ashton, a partner at the recent start-up Circus, an advertising company that styles itself as the first holistic communications company.

"A new breed of creative has started to appear since the last recession," he adds, "in part because life post-recession has been a little less forgiving. A creative can't take liberties just for being creative any more.

"As a consequence, the misplaced arrogance of the past has had to go. For instance, creatives have to turn up for meetings on time and sober, which for many has been a new concept."

More important still has been the fact that the new creatives have recognised the opportunities that flexibility in their working practices is allowing. While it may have been fun for them to spend days locked in their offices waiting for a moment of inspiration to strike, they can actually make a greater contribution to the creative process by working as part of a team. That way, they also have a better chance of seeing the work they produce make it before the public at large.

"The new creative team is the planner and account-man's friend," Ashton says. "Which was never the case in the past.

"In fact, it used to be that the poor old account man would get it in the neck both ways: he was shouted at by the clients when the ad wasn't what they wanted, and despised by the creatives for agreeing to make changes to their labour of love.

"Nowadays the emphasis is much more on flexibility and collaboration. By opening their minds and office doors to anyone who's got an opinion, regardless of their discipline, the new breed of creative has stumbled on to something. They've realised that at their best, creatives can be better planners than the planners; and at their best, creatives can make better account men then account men."

It helps that there is also a new breed of integrated advertising agencies, like Circus, springing up to help promote the corporate virtues of flexibility and working practices aimed at finding overall advertising solutions rather than merely winning creative awards.

When Interfocus, a total communications agency, was launched 10 years ago espousing these ideals, it met a certain amount of bewilderment. Nowadays, it finds itself enjoying the shift in adland emphasis. It is claiming billings of pounds 75m, and works with clients ranging from Visa to Budget Rent- A-Car and Unilever, and employs more than 140.

"We try to keep pragmatism at the heart of everything we do," says Interfocus's managing director, Matthew Hooper, "and look on creativity as a means to achieving a given objective. That means that creatives can have direct access to the client, for example, whereas the traditional agency structure tries to keep creatives as far away from the client as possible."

If that signals the beginning of the end of the situation where the art director, designer or copywriter was left alone to commune at one with the muse, it is perhaps no bad thing. A decade ago, practically the sole gauge of a creative's worth was contained in the awards he or she won. For bringing home a prestigious gong such as the Design and Art Directors Guild Award, the creative team didn't just get the warm, tingly feeling that comes with doing a good job, they would also get a cheque of up to pounds 20,000, depending on the agency concerned.

Ads that merely did a good job for the client, that showcased the full range of a creative's design, marketing and presentational skills, didn't command anything like the same respect. Perhaps, the feeling is, they should now.