Credit where credit is due. Kinda.

by charlietercek

Would “Ulysses” be a better book if James Joyce had a writing partner?  How about the Sistine Chapel ceiling?  Would it be more highly regarded if, once Michelangelo finished it, another painter came along and punched it up?

I thought of this the other day when an art director friend of mine walked out on her job at a well-known ad agency – not because of the pay, or the hours, or the quality of the work.

But because of the way the agency doles out credit.

In most agencies, when an art director and writer receive an assignment, it’s theirs from the very beginning to the very end.  They come up with a range of concepts, develop them with the help of their creative director, pitch the strongest ideas to their client, get one approved and oversee it through production – and then, if and when their little baby is lucky enough to win an award, they get the credit.

The agency that my friend just left, however, does things differently.  When the creative team presents a concept to their creative director and he likes it, the first thing he does is hand off it to another creative team.  And when that team has spent a few days developing the concept, he gives it to another team to refine further.  And time permitting, one more team after that.  Then, when the work has to go out the door, whose names are attached to it?

Those of the last team to work on it.

This had my friend sputtering.  “Why should I kill myself to come up with a great concept when I know it’s going to be yanked out of my hands and given to somebody else? If I start a project, I should be allowed to finish it.  Anything else is just not fair.”

It does seem unfair, doesn’t it?   And more than a little demoralizing.

But here’s the thing.  The work coming out of the agency my friend quit is good.  Really good.  This place is mentioned in the press all the time, and it always cleans up at award shows.  Not only that, business there is booming.  So while the creatives might get bent out of shape at the way things get done, there’s no denying that the system is successful.

It all leaves me wondering if there’s an ideal way to divvy up credit for creative work.  The feature film business, according to my screenwriter buddies, is even more merciless.  The “story by” and  “written by” credits you see at the beginning of every movie are the often the result of complicated – and pricey – negotiations between  studio lawyers and the Writers Guild.

The world of hour TV comedies, where I worked for several years, does it pretty well, however.  If you’re one of the 12 writers on staff at, say, “Two and a Half Men,” one or two episodes each season will have your name – and your name alone  – listed on them as writer.  Even though the other the other 11 writers, all of whom are really smart and funny, helped you punch that script up and make it sing.   They won’t receive credit for their work on your episodes, but you’ll return the favor by punching up the jokes on the episodes they write. In other words, everyone helps everyone else make the work great, and everyone receives credit.

Would this approach work in an ad agency?  It’s hard to say.  One thing’s for sure, however: in spite of the crummy working conditions and terrible pay – he had to endure countless hours on a wooden scaffold in an unheated chapel and was paid just 3000 ducats for his trouble – creatives like Michelangelo had it pretty good.