As the world remembers John Lennon, advertising writer Paul Burke reflects on the role Lennon & McCartney played in fostering the cult of the creative team, and how their winning formula provided the template for other working-class creatives to follow.
It’s all gone a bit John Lennon, hasn’t it?
Having recently celebrated 80 years since his birth, today we commemorate 40 years since his death. The usual hagiographies have been dusted off to bear testament to the great man’s undoubted brilliance and enduring legacy.
However, there’s a lesser-known aspect of Lennon’s legacy that none of them will mention: the fact that he and Paul McCartney were the template for advertising creative teams from The Beatles era onwards.
The cult of the creative team started with them because, deliberately or unwittingly, creative teams seemed to model themselves on Lennon & McCartney: two smart working-class kids who worked as a pair to produce outstanding creative work. That informal irreverence, which must have been so novel in 1963, has been the standard practice for creative teams ever since.
John, of course, was the acerbic, wayward genius and Paul the more sensible and ambitious one. But like the very best teams, their talent was equal and their relationship symbiotic, so the work they produced together was far better than anything they managed alone.
What’s more, their trajectory has been mirrored a thousand times by creative teams for the last 50-odd years world. Raw talent taken on by a big London firm (EMI) then encouraged and nurtured by an inspirational "ECD" (George Martin). He was their great mentor and took them from the screaming simplicity of She Loves You….
……to the baroque, Bach-like beauty of In My Life in just two years.
Within another two, he’d taken them even further, facilitating their creation of Sgt Pepper, probably the most revered and influential album ever recorded. Had it been an ad campaign, it would have cleaned up at every awards show in the world.
And the following year, so too would the White Album, an even more complex and original piece of work.
Lennon & McCartney were arguably the greatest creative team of all time but looking back, their spilt was inevitable, with each wanting the freedom to pursue his own projects. Paul formed a new agency called Wings, while John hooked up with another creative partner – an avant-garde artist called Yoko, and both enjoyed considerable success.
Mull of Kintyre, Paul’s now half-forgotten anthem to the Scottish countryside, outsold any single ever made by The Beatles. In fact, charity discs aside, it outsold any single ever made by anyone.
And John’s own anthem, recorded 10 years earlier, topped the charts in the aftermath of his death.
Like any good creatives, John and Paul each did a Christmas campaign
So do we still have a steady flow of Lennon & McCartney style creative teams bringing their flair and originality to our business?
Reader, we do not.
That sort of all-male team structure is now dated. It was pioneered by Bill Bernbach and was designed for 1960s America when there were far fewer women in the workplace. Now we have a lot more diversity and gender balance in creative departments, which can only be a good thing.
The other reason, however, isn’t so good.
The dearth of creativity in advertising has often been linked to the death of state grammar schools in the UK. Grammar schools were far from perfect but offered working-class children like John Lennon and Paul McCartney the chance to compete on level terms with those from more privileged backgrounds.
That winning combination of humble origins and a good education gave them the power to connect with all kinds of people on all sorts of levels. And they weren’t alone. Mick Jagger, Pete Townshend, Roger Daltrey, Elton John, John Major, Neil Kinnock, Michael Caine, Michael Parkinson, David Attenborough and Sting are just a few who also benefited. And from our own industry, John Hegarty, David Abbott, Alan Parker, Dave Trott, Charles Saatchi and countless others had their intellects piqued at grammar schools. In 2020, we need more like them and we need a lot of them to be women.
Trouble is, bright working-class kids are now further deterred from a career in advertising because of the price of property and the burden of debt. They could once have come down to London and shared a scruffy flat for next to nothing. Now only those whose parents are rich enough to support them can even think about making that journey.
Though all is not lost.
For many of us, an ad agency provided an education way beyond the school curriculum, and we too were inspired by our own equivalents of George Martin to develop of creative abilities we didn’t know we had. That raw talent, exemplified by Lennon & McCartney is out there in schools and colleges all over the country. It’s up to us to find it.
But with a little help from our friends, I’m sure we can work it out.
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