Relationship advice for creative duos

Creative partnerships in advertising are not unlike marriage. Once you pair up with the “the one,” it takes a serious commitment to make things work. Deciding to officially tie your careers together means doing everything — from concepting and presenting to traveling and agency hopping — in tandem.

Digiday reached out to top senior creative duos (who have remained together for at least half a decade) to find out what it really takes for creatives to click. We got them to reflect on their partnerships and dish out some advice that reveals the unique dynamics of successful creative pairings.

Our experts: Alisa Wixom (copywriter) and Kris Wixom (art director), married (yes, married) creative directors, TBWA\Chiat\Day NY, partners 15 years; Susan Young (copy writer) and Daniela Vojta (art director), group creative directors and senior VPs, McCann XBC NY, partners for five years; Grant Holland (copywriter) and Gavin Milner (art director), group creative directors, 72andSunny, Los Angeles, partners six years; Matthew Bottkol (copywriter) and Todd Eisner (art director), senior creative team, Argonaut, San Francisco, partners five years.

What’s the secret to having a successful, long-term relationship with a creative partner?
TE:  You really have to like each other. I mean we spend more time with each other than with our wives. [Laughs.]
MB:  I think sharing a general enthusiasm for advertising and being really driven to do cool, fun stuff is important. That’s something I really liked about Todd.
GM:  This is like a therapy session. I think it boils down to just having respect for another human being and fellow creative. We see ourselves as creative people, not just a writer or designer.
AW:  You have to have a similar sense of humor. You’re pretty much going to be married, whether you like it or not, so you need to share enough similar interests to be able to hang out with that person — a lot.
SY:  Daniela and I are actually very, very different. She is fabulous, stylish and sophisticated; I’m more of a jeans and t-shirts kind of girl. Oh, and she speaks Portuguese.
DV:  Yes, I’m from Rio, and Susan is from Minneapolis — two very opposite places to be from.
SY:  But we have similar sensibilities when it comes to work. We like to do stuff that pushes boundaries. We also like challenges that aren’t just about female brands or mom brands — or uteruses.

We want to agency hop, but don’t want to break up. Any tips on how to sell yourselves as a team?
AW: 
You need the work to back up your success as a duo. Awards are nice, but you don’t have to have them. You do need to show a reel or book of solid, smart-thinking work that can get there, though.
KW:  I think it’s good to get a sense from prospective new agencies about how they like to work. There are definitely places that want teams, but there are others that really like the energy of bringing in a team and then splitting them up.
TE:  All the work you present should feel like you as a team, whether it is or not. I think it’s strange when you look at a team book and it’s clear whose campaign is whose, because that highlights an individual rather than a fully functioning unit. I think teams are more interesting when you’re not sure who the work came from.
MB:  When interviewing, we’re both really present in the room, so even that process feels very collaborative. We jump in on each other and make sure that both of our personalities come through in the meeting.

How do you rekindle your team’s creative mojo when you’re feeling totally burned out?
GW: 
Alcohol. Go get a beer together and hang out, seriously. Remove yourself from the work. Step back from advertising for a second and go be a human.
KW:  Early in our career we moved around a decent amount. Changing agencies is good creatively, because you’re in a new place trying different things and working with new people.
TE:  You’re not going to be on fire every day. If one of us is really off or hitting a wall, then the other one inherently picks up the slack a little.
MB:  New projects. I think what we both love about advertising is that one day you’re working on kitty litter and the next you’re working on cars. The products and outcomes are always different and that goes a long way in keeping us fresh.

What’s the best way to resolve creative conflict?
MB:
  Beer. [Laughs.] We actually do spend a fair amount of time talking things out so that we can move forward. There are plenty of disagreements, but as long as we’re open about it and have the same goal, there’s no drama.
DV:  We have arguments, and I think that sometimes the people around us are uncomfortable, but that’s just what we do. Ten seconds later, we’re fine.
SY:  Yeah, we figure it out. We both care, so we do argue sometimes, but we’ve been with each other for so long that we just always come to an agreement or a compromise.
DV:  You have to have a one-team mentality to be successful. If your partner really believes in something, there has to be something good there.
KW:  I think it helps to get some perspective from people outside of your creative team. Opening up to other opinions helps when you’re feeling unsure or when one partner feels really strongly about something.
GH:  We have a thunderdome.
GM:  Yup, let’s just leave it at that.