Breaking up is hard to do: the truth about life after creative partnership

Breaking up is hard to do: the truth about life after creative partnership

Being part of a creative pair can feel like a marriage. But after years of working in harmony, the inevitable break-up can often be as traumatic as a real-life divorce.

George Martin, longtime producer of The Beatles, once said of the songwriting partnership between John Lennon and Paul McCartney: "Imagine two people pulling on a rope, smiling at each other and pulling all the time with all their might. The tension between the two of them made for the bond."

Advertising, though far from rock ’n’ roll, has its own versions of John and Paul. Few other industries are built around the creative partnership, bringing up talent from the earliest stages to work as a pair. Finding the right teammate to spark creativity can make or break a career. But what happens when the tension breaks?

In December, the ad industry was shocked by the sudden break-up of Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO executive creative directors Alex Grieve and Adrian Rossi, when the latter took a creative chairman role at Grey London, terminating a partnership that spanned more than two decades.

Other recent examples of creative splits include Aidan McClure and Laurent Simon, who parted ways after 14 years when the former departed BBC Creative for Wonderhood Studios; and Angus Macadam and Paul Jordan, whose 20-year union ended when the latter moved from Mcgarrybowen to WCRS.

Jordan later told Campaign that leaving his professional relationship with Macadam was akin to "divorcing someone you’re still in love with".

Like relationships, "there are very few creative duos who go the whole distance", Yan Elliott, executive creative director at The & Partnership London, says. And in the sometime chaos of agencies, creative teams’ bonds are often forged in the fire.

Teams exist because collaboration, two people "pulling on a rope", is a necessary part of bringing an idea into full force. In advertising, where those ideas will be rejected, picked apart and remade, often in front of others, relying on a partner also meets a real human need to "have each other’s back", copywriter Mary Wear says.

Yet over time, the demands of the industry tend to change those relationships. Some creative chiefs say that once they reached the upper echelons of an agency, operating as a team was no longer feasible due to time pressures and hefty workloads. Not every creative is suited to management, meaning one partner may thrive in their new role while the other struggles to find their footing. Plus, hiring an executive creative director team is expensive. In the end, it is often business and politics that break teams apart.

For many creatives, divorce is inevitable. This can force them to "embrace different ways of working", which can actually be good for creativity, according to consultant and former Adam & Eve/DDB deputy ECD Daniel Fisher.

Some may find that the solo life suited them all along, such as McCann London ECD Ross Neil, who says he has found it liberating to "drive the boat by yourself" after splitting from longtime partner Billy Faithfull. But as Neil says: "The ghost of your former partner may always be on your shoulder." No experience can quite replicate that of going through the mill with your creative match, stumbling together upon a discovery that might become a star. 

Perhaps that is why, even after any awkwardness or acrimony, so many of the divorcees interviewed by Campaign spoke of their former partners with affection and respect. These are their stories of the way they were.

Al and Trev

As told by Al Young, creative partner, FCB Inferno, and Trevor Robinson, founder and executive creative director, Quiet Storm

AY (pictured right): We met at a small business-to-business agency in Richmond. I was a young writer and Trev’s a brilliant artist – give him a pen or paintbrush and he creates beautiful things. This was a staid, old-fashioned agency and neither of us enjoyed it there. Although we were from different backgrounds, we got on very well. I was raised in Edinburgh and had the benefits of a good education. Trev, by contrast, was a young black kid from a council estate in South London. He had real, raw creative talent, but careers advisors in school were advising he got a job in the London Underground. Just through talent and tenacity, he’s got himself to an amazing place. I’m really proud of him. I’ve done in life what was sort of expected of me, whereas Trev didn’t have any of those advantages.

TR: Al came from a cultured background and used to give me books to read. I went to a pretty shit school, so I hadn’t read Catcher in the Rye or Naked Lunch or any Bukowski. I would share with him all these obscure films I loved. We sponged off each other. We both had a macabre sense of humour and felt slightly outside of advertising.

AY: We both decided to jack it in and team up, starting from scratch again. We got a placement and then a job at TBWA, but after a year-and-a-half we were made redundant, which came as a real shock. We were out there trying to get a second hire for the best part of a year. We were having to count out jars of coppers just to get the Tube fare together to get to a job interview. It was tough old times. But that forged us and made us tough. It was Trevor and I against the world. We had a bit of a "fuck you" mentality. We felt if creative directors couldn’t see our talent through our work, it was them who were at fault, not us.

TR: Even when we were on the dole and didn’t think we’d get back in the industry, we had such a brilliant time. At the time you don’t know, but it’s forging your whole way of approaching advertising. That is something that’s between you two. No-one else will understand what you mean and really get what it feels like to go through that together.

AY: Trev and I had always thought that most ads were pretty boring. We felt it would be so easy to not be boring by just not doing what everyone else was doing. We found this place, HHCL, that indulged us. They gave us big briefs and didn’t interfere, protected us from clients and nurtured clients in a way that allowed them to take creative risks. Our different takes on the world combined in an interesting way. For example, Tango’s "Orange man" was visually strong but there was an anarchic narrative that drove it. That was the hallmark of a lot of our work. I don’t think either of us could have done that without the other. Trev and I used to work together all day and then go out together all night. It was quite a telepathic relationship. I knew what Trevor was going to say before he said it, and vice versa. We rarely fought. It was so much fun that it didn’t feel like 10 hours together; it felt like 10 minutes most days.

TR (pictured left): You need a partner that you can click with. I could say things in front of him that I couldn’t share with anyone else. When you come up with an idea and you laugh about it to the point where you’ve got tears running down your face, you know it’s amazing because you’ve tested it on each other. Al used to do most of the talking for me because I used to get intimidated by people. I was always proud of how he sold our ideas. Being around Al taught me to respect the ideas we had.

AY: After about a decade, we started shooting our own stuff and left HHCL to form our own production company. We were working as directors and it went pretty well, we were making good money. My heart wasn’t really in it, but film had always been a huge passion of his. It became apparent that suddenly we wanted different things. It was straightforward: Trev wanted to go one way, and I went back to HHCL, where I had another great seven years.

TR: Even today, I sometimes collaborate with Al on things and it’s so easy. It’s like getting into bed with an ex-lover. Sometimes this is such a mental world, but when you don’t have a partner in these situations to look across the table and see they’re feeling the same thing, the absurdity can be lost. It’s one of the things I miss.

AY: I’ve worked in team partnerships since – and no disrespect to anyone else, but it was nothing compared to working with Trev. If we could have found a way to keep working together, that would’ve always been my first preference. I’d sometimes think, would I just be shit without Trev? Or would he be shit without me? I’m proud of the fact that after parting, we’ve both done well in different ways. I still count Trevor as one of my closest friends. He was one of three best men at my wedding and is godfather to one of my kids. He’s more than someone I worked with. Sometimes we don’t meet for a year because life gets in the way, but even then we’ll start talking like it was 20 years ago. It is a love story. We’re both better people for having spent that decade together.

TR: I’ve been running my own agency for about 25 years. It was Al who made me grow up and do things I’d never dream of doing when I started in advertising. If I’d never worked with Al, I would have never had the career I have now.

Jexy and Pottsy

As told by Andy Jex, chief creative officer, TBWA\London

Rob [Potts, executive creative director, Saatchi & Saatchi London] and I met at Watford – we found each other as friends first. We were both a bit terrible, then we were those ones who hadn’t been picked. We were like, should we team up – as if there was any other option. But we were both happy with that, because we got on.

We kind of never worked with anyone else. We were one of the last teams to get a job. We’d gone to Mother and DDB for placements. Robert [Saville] offered us a job, then we got an offer from DDB in response. We ended up with two dream agencies landing on a plate for us. The perseverance paid off.

We took the DDB job, then very quickly Richard [Flintham] and Andy [McLeod] left to set up Fallon in London and brought us in as the first team. They were our advertising heroes; we grew quickly and learned so much working closely with those guys when they were on fire.

After five years at Fallon, we completed that full circle and went to Mother. We tended to do a lot of just sitting opposite each other, talking about stuff that made us laugh and didn’t feel relevant. The beauty of a partner is they can look at that and go, you’ve gone too far up your own river there. We’re both quite sensitive, but we learned to be thick-skinned. When you feel like people don’t understand your idea, it’s easy to feel alone at sea. If you’ve got someone who believes in you and respects your point of view, even if they don’t understand the idea as much as you do, they back you on that.

The nature of the industry has meant the lack of ability to have two people doing the [executive creative director] job. You end up having to divide and conquer. At Saatchi & Saatchi, we always made sure we sat together and spoke about everything. But for the first time in your career, you feel the agency pulling you apart, because of how quickly you have to work and how much you have to do.

I miss my wingman. Including college, we were together for 20 years. A lot of teams split up too soon and for the wrong reasons, like because they argue. But arguing can be good. We still see each other quite often. He was best man at my wedding. Advertising was just one part of what we did together. Once, we left Fallon for about six weeks and went to Central America to follow the trail of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Rob had a romantic image of us being Butch and Sundance, and everywhere we went we recreated this iconic shot of them together. We carried those pictures with us.

Marky and Robby

As told by Mark Roalfe, chairman, VMLY&R London, and Robert Campbell, founder, CampbellTomato

MR (pictured right):
We met at an agency in 1982 in the middle of a recession. I was a terrible New Romantic and he was a Hooray Henry. We hated each other.

RC: We were in the shittiest advertising agency in London, and we managed to get a job in the second shittiest advertising agency in London. And then we managed to get a job in the third shittiest advertising agency.

MR: Then we took a holiday and went and did a placement at WCRS and got a job that was finally working with decent people. Ron Collins took us under his wing, which was a fucking scary place. We were at WCRS for two-and-a-half to three years. Then we went to Abbott Mead Vickers, which was like the university of advertising. David Abbott was a fucking genius. It was really good training.

RC: Your job is to come up with an idea on a blank sheet of paper and there’s quite a lot of money and pressure riding on it. You’re just a dumb little art school boy. It’s a very weird environment: you’d have a pitch to work on and you’d find yourself sitting in a hotel room with a pile of layout pads, and you’ve got two days to sort it out. And you know if you fuck it up, Campaign is going to report it and everyone’s going to know. It was such a goldfish bowl. So it was an incredibly deep bonding experience.

MR: We spent more than 20 years, 10 hours a day together. We were good friends and a good partnership. Together you’re able to work through ideas and you know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. That shorthand is an amazing thing.

RC: We didn’t always agree on work. There was grit in our oyster. I used to do loads and loads of ads, and I’d take them to Mark and literally some of them would grow mould. He’d be so disgusted by the stuff I came up with.

MR: We were competitive with each other, which is probably what made us good. We were both trying to come up with the idea.

RC (pictured left): Do you remember we had that meeting with Ridley Scott? We turned him down. It was the most miserable experience of our lives.

MR: If I’ve got one regret in my career, it’s that. It was fucking dumb. At Rainey Kelly we sent a script to RSA and heard back: Ridley really likes this script, would you like to come talk to him? We toddle in, and he said I have this project I’m thinking about doing, something about a gladiator. I’m not sure it’s going to come off, maybe I’ll do this in the meantime. We also had this other director who was like the cool director of the moment. We turned down Ridley rather stupidly, and the other director made a dreadful film.

At the end of Rainey Kelly, it got to a stage where we were all exhausted. We had to split up at Rainey Kelly because of the sheer volume of work. We weren’t able to work together as much; he took on one set of accounts and I took on another. Some of the magic was lost then. We’d done a four-year earn-out, which was pretty hard work. I was fucking heartily sick of it and I couldn’t wait to get my earn-out cheque and get out the door and try to do something else. Out of the four of us, I was the first person to leave. The mistake I made then was doing the same thing again. At that point, I should have fucked off and been an organic farmer or something.

MR: You would’ve been bored shitless. I was the one left there so it felt different. It’s like a hole in your life. We’re probably better together, but it’s just the way of the world. As a creative, you end up managing people and things that you’re never really trained for. The financial thing is probably the thing that splits up most teams – you’re just too much of an overhead.

RC: When you leave the business, you work out who your friends are. We used to have a kind of parody of a relationship when we were working together because we were so joined at the hip, it became a joke. It wasn’t until we were out of it, and it was more about our homes and our children and stuff like that, that our real friendship was revealed.

MR: We don’t have to see each other, so we know it is because we want to see each other.

RC: Ours was a very special relationship. As Joni Mitchell once said: "You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone." I’ve never had a partnership like that since. I still write and shoot things. Whenever I do that, I refer back to what Mark would have done. I bring his taste and skillset with me, so they get that for free when I put the bill in. Now I don’t have to go into an office and put up with the bullshit of an organisation. I find it hard to toe the line, so I ejected myself from the business. I don’t miss that, because it would’ve given me a heart attack. Mark is more patient than me.

MR: I can take the pain more. There were a lot of people at Rainey Kelly who I felt very loyal to. When it goes right, and when you do something that you think is good, that’s still a brilliant feeling.

RC: The thing people don’t know about Mark is he has the most beautiful garden. That’s the sort of guy he is. I could never grow a garden.

MR: I miss the mischief. We would share the same jokes and we brought the best out of each other. I don’t have that companionship now. I’ve never found anyone to replace Robert.

RC: We could always have another go at it.

MR: We could, couldn’t we?

Mary and Damon

As told by Mary Wear, freelance copywriter

I started out in an account role but went back to study copywriting in the 1980s. I had teamed up with a couple guys, but Damon [Collins, founder, Joint, pictured below, right] and I found we worked well together despite the fact we were both copywriters.

We made the anarchic decision to team up, which caused some disruption. It was a meeting of the minds.

When you start out, you have a view of yourself and what your strengths and weaknesses will be. You compete to team up with the best person, but that doesn’t mean you’ll get on. Damon and I had a similar sensibility; he was a funny, witty person, and incredibly hard-working and talented.

Because I was 24 and had already been to university and started working, I was driven. And Damon wasn’t like most 18-year-old boys. We were ruthless in a way, and got a job before the end of the course.

His father was Ron Collins, my hero, so we had a built-in creative director who we could visit every weekend. During the week I would stay a couple of nights at his house and we would work into the night.

We were really serious about advertising. We went to FCB for a year, then Gold Greenlees Trott, Saatchi & Saatchi and, finally, Abbott Mead Vickers.

Your partnership is an unusual relationship that only happens in advertising. You’re stuck in a room for many hours, going off on shoots and other places that perhaps you don’t go with your family. You have to get on really well and have each other’s back.

We never had the attitude of differentiating who thought of what; we were 100% loyal to each other in that way. Mary and Damon were a brand – we knew the more we stuck together, the higher value we had.

During our 16-year partnership, we both got married, had children and became godparents to each other’s children. We used to go on holidays together with our other halves and our children were friends. This was a deep-rooted friendship as well as a working relationship.

I had six months off for my first child, and he had to get someone else to work with. They did some nice work together, but I remember him visiting me and saying, "Look, I need to run this idea past you". You build trust with someone you work with long term. He was quite relieved when I came back.

I was pregnant with my second child when we parted company in 2000. I was already doing a four-day week and wanted to continue that. Damon wanted to go to the top, be a creative director and start his own agency. I knew I couldn’t really do that.

My husband was also a copywriter and needed a partner, so he and Damon went and worked together.

Damon and I had grown up together, but it’s not a bad thing to go off and work with other people. We didn’t surprise each other any more. We realised with other partners that there’s a different way of doing things.

With Damon, I learned that two people are powerful if they team up. We built something bigger than just our own talent and became an entity within an agency. We were quite verbal and could be abrasive, and would start arguments about briefs. That is how we would fire off and inspire ourselves.

I’m freelance now, and the most difficult thing as an extrovert is that I thrive on talking to people. I get my ideas from conversations, and now I have to sit there by myself and work it out. You have to train yourself to find that same fertile fire from a phone call or written brief.

Even if you get on well with your partner, you will benefit from changing dynamics and working in a different way with different people. The idea that losing your partner is like losing your right arm is a myth. Your partner is a guide and a stimulator, but they’re also a prison in a way.

It’s like when you’re a child – you grow up and have to get influences elsewhere, and that’s what makes you the person you are.

Angus and Paul

As told by Angus Macadam, executive creative director, Mcgarrybowen, and Paul Jordan, creative director, creative and experience design, Engine

PJ (pictured right):
We met on a D&AD evening workshop, but I didn’t see Angus again until we bumped into each other in a swimming pool in Clapham months later.

AM: I was with another partner at the time. I always giggle about it because Paul and I had a bit on the side, meeting up in pubs to come up with ideas behind my partner’s back.

PJ: Angus and I both thought that we were writers, so we weren’t sure that it was going to work out. We learned that having similar creative standards and work ethic is more important than just one of you being good at words and one of you being good at pictures.

AM: We came to advertising quite late – I was 27 and Paul was 29. We hadn’t done any advertising courses. We were equally matched in terms of what we wanted to do and how hungry we were.

PJ: The best partnerships have distinct personalities. When you’re in a partnership, you start to play a bit of a role. Someone once told us it’s okay to disagree and argue, because if you both agree then one of you is not needed. I was always the gobby, opinionated one who would do a lot of the talking, and Angus was quieter and more thoughtful. Over the years there is a danger you can retrench into those roles too much. But the flip side is you learn from the other person to develop the skills they have. The most important thing I learned is self-awareness. His optimism that there was always a brilliant creative idea around the corner was inspiring and draining at the same time.

AM (pictured left):
A creative team is like a marriage. If you get to be 20 years in, you’re very lucky that you’ve managed to find someone you’re destined to be with. There’s quite an edge to a good team. There’s always a difference of opinion. Paul and I would sit in a room sometimes for days, talking about a problem. The more you discuss it, the better the ideas get. There would be rows and disagreements, which can be hard. When you’re a creative director or ECD, suddenly you’re doing that in public. That puts a lot of pressure on ECD teams. Eventually you both go, we know what we’re doing, maybe we do that separately.

PJ: To be in a partnership for 20 years is quite unusual. Lots of our peers who we grew up with were no longer in partnerships. We managed to find a great working relationship, but you get to a stage where you think, what next? ECDs are rarely hired as a pair, so when thinking about the next challenge, it was looking likely that unless we started an agency, we might have to go our separate ways in pursuit of the next challenge.

AM: Even at the end, we had never fallen out and weren’t sick of each other. That made it an even harder break-up. Paul said it was like getting a divorce when you still love each other.

PJ: It was incredibly sad. There were tears on both sides. You can’t maintain a relationship over 20 years with anybody without there being a real depth of truth and respect and friendship between you.

There’s a natural moment in creative director teams’ careers where it’s possible to split up. At that moment, people should have an honest conversation about it. Don’t ignore the fact that it could happen at some point. The hardest thing is being left with sole responsibility for the department. Creative teams are a bit spoiled because they can cover each other’s faults and accentuate their strengths. When that person goes, you’re responsible for your own bad bits.

PJ: I miss having my buddy around, someone you know inside out and who you can ask about anything. But it’s also an opportunity to forge new friendships and professional relationships. I didn’t lose Angus; we’re still good mates and see a lot of each other. But I’m able to learn something about myself.

Yan and Luke

As told by Yan Elliott, joint executive creative director, The & Partnership London

When we met, I was working with another guy called Jim Hosking at Mother. Jim decided to become a director, and at the same time Luke [Williamson, creative consultant, pictured below right] was freelancing as a designer and illustrator at the agency.

Originally I was an art director, but Luke is a way better art director and designer than I would ever be. It was suggested to me by Jim and Robert Saville that I be a copywriter and Luke be my art director.

At that time, Mother was a sort of art house. We hung out a lot together and all of us would go down to the pub. It was amazing how many briefs you could crack just by good chats and banter. That’s how I bonded with Luke.

I remember vividly the day I decided to proposition Luke to be my partner. That walk from Mother, which was in St John’s Street, to Peasant Street is only about 500 yards, and I needed to break the ice. Luke had preconceived ideas about what ad people were like, but he found us lot to be decent guys. He was actually positive and said I think this could be good. Timing is everything to meet the right person.

There was nothing manufactured about it; our partnership was organic and genuine. I have seen teams who don’t get on that well or find the same shit funny, and that’s awkward. There are moments when you need to have a laugh when the pressure gets so big, or someone to put that in perspective for you. Luke and I did that for each other in spades, and out of the fun came some good ideas.

We respected each other’s point of view and skill wholeheartedly. No matter what silly idea we had, there’d always be a bit of "what if?" Maybe there is something in that.

I could get passionate about an idea, and Luke had a good bullshit radar on him. When we were both happy we knew we had something interesting. Imagine a Venn diagram of Yan and Luke: in the middle would be a good idea.

We were a team for about eight years at Mother, then we went to WCRS for five years and became creative directors. The higher up you get, you stop doing what you were doing so well, which was being a brilliant team. You have to manage a department and invariably split accounts, which meant we couldn’t spend as much time together.

We’d always talked about setting up our own place. Our ambition [with Fabula] was to be the most creative shop in London. But when you start your own place, it dilutes your talent further. You’re now a new-business person as well as an account person and creative director and creative. It took a strain on me.

I did it for a few years but realised that it was the creative bit of advertising that I loved. It was really difficult to leave Luke, but what made it a lot better was an honest and open chat. I asked him, would you carry on if I stepped away? I was most concerned about leaving them in the shtook and breaking up the party. In the same way that a marriage works – you’re either good together or you’re not – it becomes quite apparent if it’s not working. It was a yin and yang, and the combination worked for a long time.But it’s rare – a good team is gold dust. There are very few creative duos who go the whole distance.

If Fabula had gone the way I wanted it to, we’d still be working together I guess. We don’t keep in touch now, but there’s no animosity. It’s only a bit awks when you bump into your ex – it’s like, don’t try to pretend you’re having a good time without me.

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