Ship of Fools

Everyone who was anyone in my world had a starring role on Deadicated, the 1991 tribute album to The Grateful Dead.

Suzanne Vega delivers a sultry “China Doll,” Lyle Lovett produces a smokin’ “Friend of the Devil,” and I never tire of the Indigo Girls’ harmonious “Uncle John’s Band.” The individual styles the artists and bands bring to each performance make the album great. Dr. John doesn’t have to tone down his funk when singing “Deal,” because he’s the only one with the microphone. No one gets to sing along with Elvis Costello or The Cowboy Junkies. Everyone has their turn, and they all shine.

Not so in the agency world these days, as more and more clients are asking creatives from one agency to share the stage with those from another (or several others). Some companies, like Coca-Cola, continually throw up jump balls, making their shops scramble for creative control.

McCann-Erickson, the longtime darling of the Atlanta-based soft-drink marketer, is now playing a supporting role behind Berlin Cameron/Red Cell. The two were asked to collaborate, but Berlin Cameron has taken the lead on Coke Classic and is in production on the client’s “Real” campaign. What’s McCann doing? It’s not quite clear. Some say it’s assisting with the campaign. Others say it’s barely involved.

Now Sprite and Fanta agency Ogilvy & Mather has been thrown into the Coke Classic mix, too, vying for a design project that would integrate the look of the “Real” campaign into the brand’s visual identity.

Other clients frequently pit agencies against each other, believing that the duel will produce a brilliant idea. The agencies, of course, feel as though they’re fighting for control of the entire account.

Is it working?

In the case of Budweiser, maybe. Its reptile characters, courtesy of DDB in Chicago and Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, San Francisco, were always wildly entertaining, and the brand message never felt muddled by the team effort. But Coke hasn’t produced a campaign with legs (so to speak) in years. It alters its creative strategy more often than Deadheads alter their state of mind.

It remains to be seen what Deutsch and Arnold will bring to the Coors party, previously hosted solo by Foote, Cone & Belding. Coors, like many other clients, clearly expects that the competition will force shops to work harder. Dig deeper. But is that how you motivate creatives? Is it how you motivate artists?

I don’t think so.

Rarely do you see artists working together in other arenas. Paintings aren’t created by two artists. Novels aren’t written by two authors. Sure, artists come together for charitable causes, just like creatives unite for pro-bono and political campaigns. But when bigger assignments are on the line, it’s impossible for creatives to put their egos, and ownership issues, aside. If holding an account means chasing one jump ball after another, there’s no solid footing, and fear inevitably trampels the creativity.

Sure, advertising is a commercial enterprise, but creatives are still artists. Give them the ball and let them run with it.