What 'copy, then design' gets wrong

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Most everyone has heard of Simon & Garfunkel, Penn & Teller and Dolce & Gabbana, even though they are in such different industries.

At the heart of what brought these distinctively different duos such fame is how well they play to each other’s strengths and work together in a true collaboration — instead of each taking their turn to do their part in a silo. You’ve never seen Batman fight the bad guys, and THEN Robin steps in when he’s finished, have you?

The art of collaboration

Daryl Hall of the musical duo Hall and Oates explained about the art of collaboration to the Tampa Bay Times: “It’s empathy. It involves knowing how to make another person be his or her best.”

If you’re experienced in the agency world, or working with a creative agency, you know that the traditional agency setup assigns creative teams — typically a partnership of a copywriter and designer — in a similar fashion to bring about their best work. These teams work hand in hand across multiple clients and multiple types of projects, but almost always together.

The team eventually develops its own collaborative 'mojo,' typically working together for years in this creative marriage of copy and design and learning how to bring out the best in one another, to Hall’s point. For example, the 'Think Small' Volkswagen campaign that was a collaboration from art director Helmut Krone and his copywriter partner, Julian Koenig, is often credited as 'transforming advertising forever' due to its innovative content and imagery.

Such teams used to join — and leave — agencies together, keeping their collaborative partnership intact. Just like the famous duos mentioned above, what makes the agency copywriter and designer team work so well together is that collaboration is at the heart of their creative process. According to a Hightail survey of marketing and creative professionals, 85 percent say that teamwork and collaboration, when done right, can be the best part of their jobs.

A shattered model

But that’s not how it always works outside of the agency world. And even inside the agency world, the idea of copy and design partnerships is getting diluted due to clients opting for a project-based partnership with agencies instead of working with an agency of record.

That model has a tendency to “fracture the relationship between the art director and copywriter” and makes it more difficult to tell a brand’s story in a cohesive manner, according to one copywriter in a Digiday article. And as productivity and efficiency increase as a result of these shifts to project-based and in-house models, is creative quality being sacrificed? As a creative director pointed out in a follow-up Digiday article about project-based work: “The best work comes from tight-knit teams that know each other and trust each other over a period of time.”

Rebuilding the model

During a Content Marketing Institute webinar, which Hightail sponsored, Doug Kessler of Velocity Partners ltd emphasized the need for a more a collaborative approach. He explained that a typical flow for content often involves a 'content assembly line,' with the content starting with a planner, then on to a writer, then designer, then other specialists who take a turn with it.

This can be stifling if, for example, a writer’s content is approved before going to the designer — limiting the designer in scope to what’s included in the copy. On the flip side, one way that you can lose the aforementioned cohesiveness of a brand’s story is if that approved copy is changed after getting to the designer.

So how can in-house creative teams that might not be partnered in the same way as a traditional agency team work together better? As Kessler explained, “If they’re collaborating before the copy is built, they’re solving problems together. They’re combining skills to say: How can we best tell the story?”

Ad legend Leo Burnett said it best: “The work of an advertising agency is warmly and immediately human. It deals with human needs, wants, dreams and hopes. Its ‘product’ cannot be turned out on an assembly line.”

As a network of creative professionals, how do you feel about creative content handed off from copy to design to production?


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