The hired gun can’t fire blanks

Once in a while, I’m going to use these pages for a little reflection on the whole process of creativity. Perhaps it’s a little self-indulgent, but the more that I teach copywriting and creative writing, the more I find myself pondering some of the fundamentals. My recent move into self-employment has focused my mind even more.

Although I’ve undertaken a range of freelance writing and training assignments in the past few years, there’s always been a day job – most recently as joint creative director of a London agency in the niche field of recruitment marketing and employee communication. Working in the agency environment four days a week, I got very used to the personalities and processes. Although the pressure of work can sometimes feel relentless in the advertising business, I was very fortunate to have a great many good colleagues that I knew and trusted. It felt comfortable. They knew how I was likely to behave and I had a pretty good idea of what they were thinking too. Sometimes, when you were brainstorming creative concepts, the old truism of being able to complete one another’s sentences really did apply. And there are undoubtedly big advantages to these kinds of relationships. People aren’t afraid to express their ideas, for instance. It’s also easier to pick up other people’s work when a job goes round the houses.

But advertising creativity is an oddity. It’s one of the few areas of working life where two people – usually an art director and a copywriter – are asked to work as a pair. Often it’s done on an ad hoc, mix-and-match basis. Sometimes, particularly in the larger consumer agencies, the relationship is permanent. It’s difficult to think of many parallels, apart from maybe American cops like Cagney & Lacey or Starsky & Hutch. These paired relationships can have their downside as well. You can get to know the people you work with too well. Sometimes this means that you don’t challenge yourself or your partner quite enough.

It can often be good to encounter somebody new who works in a completely different way. They can pose unusual questions and uncover unlikely angles. It’s a phenomenon I encountered at the start of the year when I walked into an agency as a hired gun. I’d never been there before and was teamed up an art director I’d only met previously on an awards judging panel. This guy is very good. But I’ve worked with a number of good people over the years. The thing that really forced me to raise my game was the fact that we’d never worked together before. He was seeing what I could do. In the nicest possible way, testing me out a little. Inevitably, I was doing the same. And the net result, I think, was some really nice conceptual advertising. As a freelancer, I can’t afford to fail, so my grey matter is getting an extra special workout right now.

My advice, for what it’s worth, to any aspiring copywriter or art director is to work with as many different people as you can. A little cosiness can help you magic up some really good creative work. But a little edginess is perhaps more likely to produce something great.

© Phil Woodford, 2006. All rights reserved.

Phil Woodford is a freelance writer and trainer. He lectures in advertising at the University of Westminster in London.