Editor’s note: This second article in our new Emerging Voices series is made possible by the generous support of Looney Advertising in Montclair, NJ.
The advertising industry calls them unicorns—the creatives that are skilled in both art direction and copywriting. When a unicorn is discovered, some advertising veterans that believe in the traditional creative structure question their authenticity. Is their horn fraudulent?
Right before I graduated from college I was seeking feedback on my portfolio, so I dropped my link into Fishbowl, the anonymous app for professionals in advertising. After noticing that I was branding myself as a hybrid creative, a creative director commented, “I’d pick one and brand yourself as that. As someone who hires both, I don’t have a need for someone who is trying to learn both skills – I have a need for people who are laser-honed-in-on mastering one.”
These are the people that believe someone can be okay at both, but they won’t excel. That’s why the creative hybrid has become synonymous with an uncommon mythical creature. The reality is that our industry is evolving, and creative roles are not immune to that evolution. It’s time for the industry to become more open to the hybrid creative role.
The Promise: Nimble Leaders and Better Work
Many entry-level creatives enter the workforce with the goal of one day rising to the rank of creative director. It’s common knowledge that once an art director, copywriter, designer, or other creative type reaches this stage of their career, they should be able to direct every creative element of a project—from the body copy in a print ad to the coloring of a TV spot. Fostering multiple skill sets over a longer period of time makes for better prepared, more well-rounded creative leaders.
Additionally, what constitutes an ad has changed drastically over the past few decades, and clients expect agencies and their talent to be nimble. Practicing more than one discipline offers that crucial agility. Mara Lecocq, Brand and Community Director at Fishbowl and Co-Founder of Where Are The Boss Ladies and Secret Code, emphasized how necessary it is: “It’s beyond ‘we can be more than that.’ It’s ‘we have to (work this way) to survive.’” She says, “Me working at a startup…they would’ve never hired me if I just knew art direction or creative direction. They told me, ‘we are hiring you because you have entrepreneurial experience and you build community.’”
Great Creatives Who Wear Both Hats
There’s further evidence for the theory that someone can be great at both disciplines—they’re already doing it. Robyn Frost specialized in both Art Direction and Copywriting concentrations at the School of Communication Arts in London and now does both at FCB in Chicago. She and her partner Henry have been working as a hybrid team since the start of their careers and have worked on some of the world’s biggest brands, including Google, Boeing, Clorox, Heineken, Nestle, and more. While also being a thought leader in the industry, Robyn has scooped up awards and press from the biggest awards shows and publications in the industry for her work.
She says, “Six months into the industry Henry and I gave a talk at Glug London about the power of hybrid creative teams. We shot a short film to reinforce our point – and we set a brief. We asked Henry’s little brother and sister to make a poster, but only his brother could write it, and his sister must draw it. Tantrums ensued. Doing both can be instinctive. You wouldn’t stunt a child’s creativity, so why do the same for adults?”
Sai He has also gained notoriety for his infamous internet presence, Dong Draper. Sai, while known as a senior copywriter, has practiced art direction throughout his entire career. He says, “There’s so much that’s out of your control. An agency may promise to hire you a creative partner, only for circumstances to change. Your partner might leave you for a new job, or have to move for personal reasons. When these things inevitably happen, you can either be left at a disadvantage, or you can use the opportunity to become a better creative.”
Craft Without Compromise
Outside of advertising, the proposition of being well-rounded in one’s industry is not a foreign concept. Many of today’s most relevant actors, such as Lakeith Stanfield or Florence Pugh, are expected to seamlessly switch between different roles or parts with ease. Barbara Streisand garnered attention as a decorated actress and singer. Major league baseball players are expected to simultaneously be great defenders and hitters. These professionals are multidisciplinary and their craft is still precise—hybrid creatives are no different.
Although practicing both art direction and copywriting well may be more difficult, it’s not impossible. Some of the industry’s biggest agencies, such as 72andSunny, are abandoning siloed titles in favor of the hybrid creative role while still retaining their craft.
In the Ad Industry, Smashing Traditions Is the Tradition
It’s hard to believe that there was a time when art directors and copywriters worked in different departments. Bill Bernbach challenged this standard and subsequently revolutionized the way the industry works. Advertising is no stranger to this type of revolution—it’s its lifeblood.
While some may resist change, others embrace it. In response to the question “Can a creative successfully practice both art direction and copywriting disciplines?” a Fishbowl user responded, “Yes. Creatives, where I’m from, do both.” These are the agencies that will thrive, and fifty years from now, be seen as creative revolutionaries.
Not everyone will be a creative hybrid. And ultimately, collaboration as a team yields the best creative results. However, our industry thrives by being adaptive. If we become more open to this type of working style, we’ll continue our evolutionary success.