The great debate: are craft skills really declining in agencies?

The great debate: are craft skills really declining in agencies?

Critics – including none other than adland legend and Bartle Bogle Hegarty co-founder Sir John Hegarty – have recently warned that agencies’ craft skills, from copywriting to art direction, are in decline. But are they getting worse or simply evolving? Campaign asked two creatives to debate the issue


Paul Burke, freelance copywriter

There’s no question that craft skills in advertising agencies have declined, so there are three questions we now need to ask. Why has this happened? Who is to blame? What can we do about it?  Let’s start with a “who”.

Shirley Williams

Baroness Williams died recently and tributes were duly paid. But among the more honest assessments, one should have said, “and she caused enormous damage to craft skills in British advertising”. 

The dearth of creativity can be traced back to the death of grammar schools – the government minister chiefly responsible was Williams. She denied poorer children the chance to compete on level terms with those from more privileged backgrounds. Years later, the effects were felt in advertising. 

Copywriters and art directors were usually working-class, grammar-school kids who’d shown a talent for writing, drawing or both. Their humble home lives aligned to a fine education meant that their work connected with people from all backgrounds. Grammar schools gave us The Beatles, the Stones and some of the greatest creative departments this country has ever known. Because with grammar schools, the clue was in the name.


Like money, technology is a wonderful servant but a terrible master. You only have to think of Phil Rylance and Leighton Ballett, a former senior creative team at J Walter Thompson. When the agency’s entire IT system crashed, most employees sat helpless – but not Phil and Leighton. They simply got out their pens and pads and carried on working.  

Phil Cockrell and Graham Storey are another team senior enough to remember the heyday of Spangles and Spandau Ballet. Faced with a similar situation at Fallon, they too responded with paper and pen. All could carry on creating because they had the craft skills to do so. If those agencies’ other teams had possessed the same skills, the sudden loss of tech would have been a minor issue, rather than a major crisis. JWT was once the UK’s biggest agency and Fallon was its most creative, yet neither exists as a standalone agency any more. Can you think why?

The lovely lecturer

Lovely but misguided. I was mentoring advertising students recently and bemoaning the poor standard of writing in much of their work. “Well, we like to focus on the idea,” the lecturer said. “Once they get into an agency, they’ll be turned into a Paul Burke or a Paul Belford.” Two problems: first, I don’t deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as an art director who’d routinely win more awards in a year than I’ll manage in a lifetime. Second, and more importantly, the senior people in creative departments who might have been able to help are no longer there. Those who remain have neither the time nor the talent to do this, because you can’t teach what you don’t know.  

The absence of excellence

It’s impossible to emulate excellence unless you’ve experienced it. So if our industry is to survive, its students and juniors need to be immersed in excellence. At the moment, I’m not sure that they are. While mentoring students, I’ve been dismayed by what I’ve seen them briefed to do: organise puerile PR stunts, invent products that will never exist and waste their time on a slew of pointless pursuits that bear no relation to what a real ad agency would expect them to do. So there’s only one thing for it….

Back to the drawing board

Literally. Seasoned copywriters and art directors who’ve fallen victim to “surplus headcount reduction” should be welcomed back into agencies two days a week before it’s too late. They could advise, appraise and share their vast knowledge with less experienced colleagues. In a digital world, the skilled use of words and images is more vital than ever, so they could pass on the tenets of their crafts: how to make the best use of any space and choose the most suitable typeface; the importance of line breaks; techniques to keep copy concise, engaging and persuasive; ways to create characters and write dialogue; why “the idea” is the beginning not the end… why creativity is imagination plus craft. And why the former is no good without the latter. With so many clients describing their products as “expertly crafted”, we need to ensure their advertising is too.


Laura Rogers, global creative director, Adam & Eve/DDB

Offer to write an article in defence of craft and you’re asking for it, aren’t you?

It’s much easier to say craft is dead and remember the good old days, when copywriters were actual writers, and art directors wandered around creative departments high on mounting spray, bearing scars from cutting blade mishaps.

But I’m not going to do that. There’s a tremendous amount of brilliantly crafted work being made today, and I’m prepared to rile up the craft mob if it means defending the current generation of creatives.  

Some context for those who’ve been staycationing at an off-grid glamping site and not glued to Twitter: the war on craft is back. This debate might seem pressing, but it’s been around for decades. I remember seeing an article in Ad Age in 2003 announcing that the written word was dead; a frightening read for a young copywriter. But I’m still here and, more importantly, so are the words.

The thing that really bothers me about arguments over craft, copywriting or otherwise, is that they’re inevitably served up as an advertising version of the old Four Yorkshiremen sketch: “When I was a junior, I was made to set type for a week straight, through driving rain, with no breaks, and no shoes!”

The implication here is that the current generation hasn’t been put through its paces properly. And that creatives aren’t that good at their jobs. I have a huge problem with this. I think creatives today are brilliant, explosive, exciting thinkers, and I’m ready to defend them to anyone who says otherwise. 

Before you dismiss me as another nu-gen “creative” who doesn’t even say whether she’s an art director or a writer, I learned my job the old-fashioned way. 

When I was briefed on a line as a junior, I would write. And write. And write. My art director would watch nervously, knowing that every line also had to be scamped up. Eventually, we’d shuffle into our creative director’s office and present her with the precious stack of ideas (on paper!) and watch silently as she sorted them into two piles, trying to guess which was the “good” pile and which was the “bad”. Then we’d be sent back to do more, because while there were a few “goods”, they weren’t good enough.

This is how I learned. But I can’t remember the last time a team came to me with a stack of pages. And that’s absolutely fine. What I get are ideas that don’t live just within the boundaries of a page. The best teams today look at the page and think: how can I use this space in a way it’s never been used before? That’s more than great writing, it’s great thinking.

And great thinking is the catalyst for great crafting. Because what is craft except caring so much about something that you won’t rest until it’s perfect?

But this is where the problem occurs, and why we see so much work that doesn’t show the craft skills that we still very much have. It’s not enough that a creative team cares about a piece of work. The agency and the client must care too. They must care enough to give the team the time and resources it takes to craft work until it has that magic that transcends logic and mesmerises the viewer with its flawlessness.

Sometimes, this happens. Take the latest Lynx ad by The Martin Agency. It’s written with hilarious detail, thoughtfully cast, and directed with confidence and flair. That’s what comes when everyone invests enough to make an idea great.

Or look at the impeccably well-observed portrayal of cancer care in Macmillan Cancer Support’s “Whatever it takes” campaign by Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO. This is work made by people who care deeply about what they’re putting out in the world.

And what about campaigns that don’t have Lynx’s budget or Macmillan’s profile? If I may brazenly suggest work from my own team, I offer our latest campaign for Hey Girls, designed to provoke anger and end period poverty. The team (creatives, agency and client) were so devoted to getting it right that every decision was scrutinised, debated and reworked until the campaign was exactly as it should be.

These ads are all recent, so clearly craft is alive, well, and living in a comfortable end-of-terrace home with a garden. But if craft skills exist, why is there still so much out there that doesn’t live up to standards?

Instead of maligning creatives as unschooled imposters, if you’re not getting well-crafted work, look at the care you’re putting in. Time. Money. Space. Support. Passion. Trust. Every single one of these determine the level of craft possible on a project. It’s not enough to point to creatives who almost unanimously want to make great work. Clients, agency teams and creatives need to care equally to produce quality.

We don’t always choose that. Sometimes we want a quippy social post. Or a hard-working banner. And twenty years ago, there were small-space newspaper ads. That’s fine. There’s a place for work that doesn’t demand our very best. There always has been.

But when you want well-crafted work, you can have it. Just be prepared to roll up your sleeves too.


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