Is Two Better Than One?

Josh Denberg and Paul Hirsch have been creative partners for 10 years, but the Leo Burnett group creative directors that some clients call “The Popes” admit they aren’t typical colleagues. “It’s a little like a marriage,” says Hirsch, an art director. Three years ago they left Goodby, Silverstein & Partners in San Francisco together to return to Chicago, their mutual hometown. “The hardest thing in advertising was finding a partner,” Denberg says. “Once you’ve got a partner, you can do a lot of great stuff. If there is a downside, I don’t think it can outweigh [the benefits].”

Creative teams that have passed the decade mark aren’t easy to find these days. Even partners with great long-term potential often split when one is lured away by another agency offering more money, better location, prestige or career advancement. But the good news for teams who are willing to stick together is that, when there’s room in the budget, agencies like to hire successful pairs—they’re “plug and play,” says Draft New York group creative director Ted Eyes. Best bet, recruiters say, is for creative teams to stay flexible.

“The demand for freelance teams is high, but staff teams are not as in-demand, so if you market yourself as a team, you’re going to have a longer wait for the right call,” says recruiter Jill Weingarten of Greenberg Kirshenbaum in New York. “You should say, ‘We could be a team or move separately.’ That gives everyone options.”

Indeed, budget restrictions pose the greatest threat to long-term teams that hope to survive an agency switch. “If you’re making $250,000 each, and you want to move as a team, you’re saying [to an agency] next time you have a half million to spend …,” says Weingarten. “You’re running the risk of only waiting for that one-in-a-million job.”

Denberg and Hirsch say they met with Burnett jointly at a time when deputy chief creative Mark Tutssel was specifically looking to hire teams. “When you’re already a team, it’s already set,” says Denberg. “It’s easy to know what you’re going to do, and there are fewer headaches.” Burnett’s manager of creative recruitment, Kara Taylor, agrees. “Josh and Paul are people who will not ever consider working with someone else, and if they’re super-talented, that’s how we’ll take them.” In fact, she says, the agency is currently looking for mid-level teams. “I think the need right now for mid-level teams is a product of having a lot of juniors and seniors and not a lot at the mid-level,” she says. “And the idea of those people joining as a team right now—because we need them to come in and take the ball—is definitely a huge advantage.”

Nonetheless, Taylor advises creatives at all levels against selling themselves solely as teams. However, she doesn’t mind when just-hired creatives mention partners who are willing to join them. “It’s a total positive if they say, ‘I really like working with this person and I can get his or her work here.’ I’ll be honest, and if there’s a job for a team, I’ll say, ‘Have him or her send work.’ If not, I’ll say, “There’s no need.'”

Fifteen-year partners Paul Malmstrom and Linus Karlsson didn’t need to worry about marketing themselves as a team when Fallon literally came calling in 1996. After six years together at Paradiset in Stockholm, Fallon cd Bill Westbrook gave The Swedes, as they’re known, a call one late night. “He basically said, ‘Get your butts over here,'” Karlsson, a copywriter, says.

By arriving together in Minneapolis, they sensed a power in their partnership. “I think if we had moved one by one to an agency, it would have been fairly easy to get lost in the machinery,” says Malmstrom, now a partner at Mother in New York with Karlsson. “But when you’re two, you realize how much stronger you are standing up for your ideas.”

Of course, there are long-term teams that find success staying put. Eyes and his copywriting partner, group cd Pat McGuire, have not only been together for 10 years at Draft, but have also worked on the same business—Verizon—the entire time. “We’ve seen teams split up because people think maybe the grass is greener, or get tired of the day-to-day grind and want to freelance and start their own thing,” says McGuire. “We’ve been fairly content with our situation here and never entertained that notion.” There have been times when the agency considered splitting the team so one could work on a new account, but McGuire adds, “At the end of the day, everyone realized we had this good machine going.” Today the pair manages a team of 40.

So what is it about successful teams that make them attractive to agencies? In addition to their product and chemistry, they have developed efficiencies. Many say they work faster because they know each other so well. “There’s a shorthand … we can solve things quicker,” says Hirsch. “It comes with knowing each other’s strengths and weaknesses and style.” Malmstrom describes that shorthand as a virtual “mental pipe between our two heads.” He says, “You know what things you can skip, and you can go straight to the point.”

Though most creative partners are hard-pressed to name a downside, some industry veterans point out that the strong bond of an incoming pair sometimes can be interpreted as insular and off-putting to the rest of the team. But many partners say the hardest part is keeping the work fresh. Bill Cochran and Patrick Murray, who have worked together for 10 years at The Richards Group in Dallas, have learned to work face-to-face as little as possible. “A lot of young teams spend a lot of time staring at each other when they could benefit from thinking on their own,” says copywriter Cochran. Murray adds, “We’re comfortable if I come up with an idea on my own, I’ll say, ‘What do you think?’ and vice versa. We’ve known a few teams where [a partner] thinks it’s not as good an idea when they don’t come up with it together.”