Writer Versus Art Director

And it is written in the ancient scrolls that copywriters and art folk shall forever be mortal enemies. Or maybe that’s something from a video game – not entirely sure. It does, however, sometimes seem to be the reality within “the business.” Case in point: I’m in several Linkedin groups, one of which is made up entirely of copywriters. Many discussions within the group originate from young writers trying to break into advertising or those with first jobs. The other day, I got a message from one of these frustrated fledglings:

Hi Alan, I am a copywriter with only 6 months of experience in copywriting, though I have more than 2 years of experience writing. U say that we should think in terms of concept rather than that of writing or art direction, but how is it possible if we don’t know what concept the designers are working on? I am expected to write copy before the designing has begun. I still lack the ability to evolve concepts. Will you please guide me in how to develop this skill?

Hmmm. Instinctively, I almost recommended some sort of electric cattle prod maneuver or a car bomb, but thought better of it. You see, the designers in question are likely just as young and inexperienced as my copywriter. They know not what they do, dude. In school, each budding young creative is forced to fend for his or herself. Sure, sometimes they “partner,” but mostly they’re on their own (yeah, pretty much just like life). What neither the designers nor the copywriters understand yet is that great ideas usually happen through partnership and not in isolation. Unless a collaborative creative approach is carefully nurtured by creative management, the process becomes very “chicken and egg:” designers wait for copywriters to “write something” for them to “design to” and copywriters are looking for a picture to write to. Before you know it everyone’s out of time, Account Service has that “you owe us work” sneer, and we all have to go have another look at the brief. It all amounts to weak work. Stop it. I mean it – don’t make me turn this car around.

I recommended to the copywriter that she take steps to actively change the landscape and thus the game:

• At the outset, she should seek out the designer assigned to the project. I mean right after the brief. This lets the designer know quickly that the copywriter is engaged in the process, and won’t be sitting around waiting to sprinkle letters onto a design.

• The copywriter should ask the designer when the two of them can spend some time together and talk about concepts. This will often make said designer break into a cold sweat and possibly make his or her eye begin to twitch. The reason is that many designers simply aren’t built for collaboration, but I’ll address that in the second part of this series.

• Two things can happen at this point: The designer will agree to allow the copywriter into his or her thinking space, or reject the notion altogether. The excuse will sound something like, “Wellll, we normally go and work for a while and then maybe like get with the copywriters about stuff we’re liking. I don’t really know what we’re doing with it yet. So uh… maybe in a couple days…” Yeah, it’s lame. Let me translate that for you: “I don’t know how to work with a copywriter. I don’t even really understand why you have to sit back here with us. We do art. I’m not sure what you do. Or why. People don’t read anyway. I like blue. My boss says we’re the creatives and we get words from you. I don’t understand what you’re asking for here.”

• If the designer shuts the copywriter out, the writer should go and create concept work anyway – alone or with another writer. Concept is not about pretty colors. It’s about IDEAS. A writer can have them as easily as someone with a Wacom tablet. By the way, any good Creative Director loves ideas. No matter whether they come from a writer’s hand or a designer’s screen, the idea is and always will be king. On the day that ideas are reviewed, the writer should make sure he or she has five killers scratched onto some paper and clearly articulated. That only has to happen once, and the designers will be ready to listen to what a writer has to say. Trust me on this.

At last, a conclusion.

There was a time when advertising agencies pretty much created topline, mass communication. They told Ricky and Lucy how to sell soap and then broadcast that message to “Mr. and Mrs. America.” That was before the fragmentation of society, before the move to extreme choice and individualism, and before technology that put us all in touch with each other. For these and many other reasons, the once standard Copywriter + Art Director teams have too often given way to “pools” of creatives that promiscuously bounce from project to project and from partner to partner. The practical result is the death of the special relationship that copywriters and visual artists once had. The people on these teams were once thought of as a single entity within the walls of the agency, and each team took on a special personality. The creative team ate together, they drank together and they had the sacred power to invent. It had weight and meaning, and the good ones could finish sentences for each other. This made them formidable allies and a real thinking force. But forty or so years of agency evolution have sort of dumbed that down. Agencies used to exist on Madison Avenue, but now there’s an “agency” on every corner. There’s not enough big brand work to go around, so many smaller agencies get tasked with doing work that sometimes amounts to little more than graphic design and production. Clients have also evolved. Agencies once held a certain mystique and were thought of as partners in the stewardship of the brand. Now, many clients keep their own stables of talent, and the brand managers often fail to see how agencies can offer them anything unique. For that reason, many agencies must accept the role of vendor. No longer partners in the direction of the brand, they instead become execution specialists. I don’t mean to be discouraging here, I’m just making a point. Young creatives must fight through all the inertia that would keep them from ascending to the levels they aspire to. Here’s a message to them:

The agency and the people inside it don’t have the power to turn you into a production drone unless you’re willing to be one. Act like a real creative. Do the things real creatives do. Specifically, insist on creating an environment around you that offers you inclusion. Be great at some nowhere shop in a nowhere town. Then you’ll get the opportunity to be great somewhere else. Read the histories of advertising and understand the things that make magic. You can offer the next wave of invention.

This is the first in a three part series. Look for the second post in this series, entitled: “Copywriters are from Mars, designers from Venus, and Art Directors are from somewhere near Saturn. Account people are from Uranus.” It’s coming soon. Very soon. But no worries, you can sleep first.

Photo credit to SKYY Vodka. Fantastic new “Aliens vs Predator” campaign. This is one in a series


  1. Enmibeth says:

    Great article Alan! I’m looking forward to the continuation of the series.

    We discussed this topic, “writer versus art director”, on the LinkdeIn group, “Advertising Copywriting”, and this article sums up the whole conversation. I’m an advertising student at FIT, where the confusion between art & copy happens everyday in class. Unlike portfolios school, such as Miami Ad School where students focus on either art direction or copy, we start working individually to develop art and copy. The problem with that is, some students are stronger art directors, others are better copy writers. Some art directors begin to execute the ad visually and don’t fully develop the concept. Vice versa, the copywriters write great copy but have simple layouts. I agree, the best work comes from collaboration.

    Copywriter, Art Director, Designer, we’re all different. Myself, I’m a designer, turned art director, turned Copywriter. I find stimulated with words rather than visuals, I’m in the right place. As the school year progresses, the difference between personalities in classmates heighten. Art Director and Copywriter?

    • Alan Whitley says:

      Thanks for being a part of the conversation Enmibeth – I look forward to your observations as a guest writer on Logic and Lightning. You’re right, there is an awful lot of confusion around the roles that populate our industry, but the truth is that they overlap on a daily basis. We have to put aside what we believe our stated roles are, and focus on how to find great ideas and bring them to life. We only limit ourselves when we isolate.

      Thanks for being here!

  2. Correction on my last sentance, art director or copywriter, not “and”. I’m looking forward to adding a student perspective to Logic and Lighting. The industry is envolving rapidly and the young generation is a heavy participant. Right now its midterms week in FIT, little sleep for art students. Look for my contributions starting next week!

    Thanks for inviting me Alan.

    - Enmibeth.

  3. Hey man I just wanted to say thanks for taking the time to create something worth my time to read. I am all over the net and I see so much useless junk that is just written for the sake of putting something fresh on their site . It takes devotion to create good stuff, thanks for caring.

    • admin says:

      Thanks for the comments. I really like it when people interact with the site, and I hope to build a lot of conversational activity. Thanks for being here! – Alan

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    • admin says:

      Thanks so much – I did create parts of the design: the logo and the background photo (the lighting streaks). Beyond that, I just had to choose a css style within the theme I chose, and selected the widgets I wanted to display. The whole system is created by Studio Press (ranked the first or second best blogging platform, depending on who you listen to). WordPress is the basis (free to anyone of course). They have a blogging “platform” that works on top of that (called “Genesis”), and they also sell “child themes” that layer on top of the Genesis platform. Mine is called “Sleek,” but there are about 20 of them available. Genesis costs something like $85, then the child theme is $50 or so (I forget exactly). So for just north of $100 and the cost of your domain name and hosting package (mine is through Go Daddy), you can be up and running. The whole thing is extremely capable and once you get the hang of the WordPress dashboard, it’s easy to maintain your own blog. Crazy easy to establish a site! If you want a similar site, just go to the footer link on my homepage. Click on “Genesis” and it will take you there. I also get a shared sale credit if you buy, so I appreciate you using the link. – Alan

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  21. This brought to mind an old chinese proverb. But can’t remember the way it went.


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