It was in a collection of proverbs by the English writer John Heywood, published in 1546, that the phrase “two heads are better than one” was first known to appear. Psychologists have since put this notion to scientific test and discovered that it is indeed true that more people produce better results than fewer, but only if the right conditions are met. The most important of these is “social perceptiveness”, or how well each person can interpret the feelings of the others.
Co-chief creative officers (co-CCO), and co-executive creative directors (co-ECD), a unique but not uncommon pairing in the advertising world, will be able to relate to this. The pairs we spoke to all mentioned in one way or another that trust and shared empathy are what makes their partnership work, and all agreed that two heads are indeed better than one.
So how do these creatives manage to share the responsibilities, titles and glories that come from holding the top creative role in a deeply competitive industry, full of egos and challenges? We spoke to three pairs for their insights.
John Koay and Matthew Nisbet, co-executive creative directors, Ogilvy in Hong Kong
John Koay and Matthew Nisbet first met on Koay’s first day at Ogilvy Hong Kong, back in 2013, when he joined as creative director. He’s “aged a lot” since then, jokes Nisbet, who was at that time already an Ogilvy old hand, having started as a copy-writer with the agency some seven years earlier, in 2006.
The two, who would go on to become co-ECDs in 2018, initially bonded over their similar sense of humour and shared tastes in creative work. “We just naturally gravitated towards each other,” says Koay. Before Ogilvy he had been used to working on his own while Nisbet was much more used to the idea of professional pairings, having had some seven different creative partners down the road. He thinks Koay is the one he mixes best with, however. The pair describe themselves as “great mates”, who regularly grab a beer or lunch together.
The key to making the co-ECD role work, they think, is honesty. “You can't treat your partner as your part-time enemy,” says Koay. “You have to be equals. I think that's the most important thing. I've seen a lot of other teams where one person has a personal agenda and it all falls apart very quickly.”
Nisbet also thinks they bring different backgrounds and strengths that complement each other. “I think John would consider himself more from the traditional school of advertising, whereas I am more of a digital person because I was at Ogilvy One [the digital arm of what used to be called Ogilvy & Mather]. So the great thing about that is that we can kind of go to each other with an idea that maybe we don’t know the best way of executing it. I could go to John with a film and he might have some great reference for it or there could be an interactive idea that John needs a bit of tech know-how on.”
It’s easy to find evidence that their relationship converts into results. Koay and Nisbet both worked on the hugely successful ‘Hot & Spicy’ campaign for KFC, which featured a series of visuals in which fried chicken was made to look like fireballs. It won more golds at Cannes Lions in 2018 than any other campaign in the world. Nisbet worked more on the ideation side while Koay “polished the hell out of the art direction”, and the pair thinks the ad’s outstanding success was down to the simplicity of the idea, which translated well across cultures. Only one element it wasn’t so easy, recalls Nisbet: “The hard part was actually just finding these scenarios which weren't anything related to war or disaster or destruction. When you think of fireballs it’s so much easier to think of tanks or explosions or whatever. So we had to work quite hard to find three for the original campaign that worked.”
A lot of ideas come when they are simply chatting with each other or their team, they relate, and some of the best start out as a little more than a joke: KFC’s edible ‘Finger Lickin’ Good’ nail polish, which came out in 2016, is a good example. Keeping the atmosphere light and fun and allowing for mistakes is essential. “Hey, it’s just advertising. Let’s have fun with it,” says Nisbet.
“One of the great things working with Matt is that we have fun doing it,” Koay echoes. “Work is never like: ‘Oh my God here's another job coming’. We just try to make a difference for our clients and also the rest of the department. I know advertising in Hong Kong is pretty full on, pretty busy and a lot of people can get bogged down in the daily grind, but I think Matt and I have an outlook where if you make advertising interesting then other people will actually enjoy it.”
Both Nisbet and Koay agree that a joint ECD role is more productive than a single person doing the job. “No matter how good someone is, it’s always good to have someone they can trust, depend on and someone they can share stuff with,” says Koay. “I think it's something that sends out a good message as well in terms of collaboration.” They admit that some elements of competition never quite go away, however. “I think all good creatives are competitive, that's what drives a lot of people to come up with the next really interesting campaign,” says Nisbet. “From my point of view part of that is still there. I do share some stuff with John and I want him to go 'Ah shit yeah bru, that's a great idea'”.
Simon Handford and Sandy Chan, founding partners at Anonymous, Hong Kong
The two founding partners of Anonymous, an independent agency with around 15 employees, based in Hong Kong, have worked together fruitfully for some 20 years—and their frankness with each other illustrates their familiarity.
Copy specialist Handford has spent most of his working life since college in the UK working in art director-copywriter partnerships, and says he’s so used to it that he now finds it hard to come up with ideas alone. “Obviously I brainstorm best with Sandy but I'll take a stuffed toy or something to talk to! I just think I’m much better when I’m bouncing stuff off someone.”
“Which drives me mad!” counters Chan, laughing. “When I am looking for references or searching for certain ideas... he kept talking to me and it just breaks my train of thought. But other than that I accept him. I have been working with him for more than 20 years and sometimes our partnership falls apart but I think actually it works out quite well most of the time, I think because he always has a very different point of view from what I have.”
Where they agree is that their different perspectives help them explore more territories around an idea, which always helps them generate the best work for their clients.
Chan also had a few partners before, usually Chinese copywriters. Working with Handford, who is both creative and strategy-driven, she says, has been “quite good”. “That's the only compliment I’ve had in probably about five years!” he responds.
The two have shared a unique history. After working together some years previously and then splitting ways, they both re-started in M&C Saatchi’s Hong Kong office in 2007, becoming joint ECDs and joint MDs. This was “very weird”, according to Handford. “M&C was pretty empty when we started. They didn’t have many people, didn't have many accounts, and they didn’t really have a portfolio. Our job was to go in there and literally take projects that were half done and change them so that we could build a portfolio.” It suited the pair to build up more shared work experience before they started on the agency they’d often talked about launching together.
First, though, they left M&C Saatchi and spent almost four years as ECDs at Ogilvy, also in Hong Kong, until Anonymous was finally born in late 2013. Their co-working process is now pretty refined, they explain. Chan is in charge of art decisions and Chinese language decisions, and is also “much more business minded than me and much better as a leader than I am,” according to Handford. “She’s the one who cracks the whip when it needs to be cracked and gets everybody focused on the project.” His role is more strategic, he explains: “I’ll articulate the ideas, build the deck, I’ll present a lot more to the client, pitch the ideas, and then make decisions on the writing and control that side of it as well.”
They both appreciate remaining “hands on” with the work despite running their company at the same time. “I think that's very different from a lot of the models in Hong Kong,” says Chan. “We really have no account servicing here and a lot of times we have realised actually clients come to us because they are looking for original ideas and creative solutions. I think if the idea is good and everyone is on board, we don't really feel that need to have an account director to co-sell it.”
Their brainstorming process involves throwing around ideas, scribbling down key thoughts and words and then working with their teams to flesh out the bones. Frequently, these days, they have built enough trust to know they can go to a client with just one great idea, instead of several options. “We know when to say ‘now we can go and get a drink,’” says Handford. “We know when we’ve got something.”
Sonic Choy, executive creative director and William Li, deputy creative director at Leo Burnett Hong Kong
Most serious professional partnerships seem to involve plenty of lunch dates: useful for brainstorming, catching up, and, of course, feeding the working brain. Choy and Li first got to know each other over work lunches too, dating back more than 10 years to when they were both art directors at Leo Burnett, working in different teams.
Li stayed with the agency while Choy moved on to work at Grey Group and independent Hong Kong agency The Gate, but they were reunited when he re-joined the agency in 2018 and management promoted both. Choy's position is slightly more senior, but both run the Hong Kong office’s creative department.
Li thinks the shared role is a natural fit for the kind of job they do. “The ad industry is always an industry about interpersonal skills. We communicate with people, whether it’s one other person or a lot,” he says. “Sonic is a nice guy as well, we have common interests, we both play soccer, we like movies—even in jobs, we always have quite similar judgments.”
Because they are both art-based rather than copy-based creatives, Li and Choy work slightly differently to other partners in that they tend to divide up work and each run their own projects, with assistance where needed from the other. They do, however, spend much time discussing early concepts and ideas before parcelling the projects out.
They think that co-creative partnerships in general can work well, but that it is conditional on the circumstances. Says Li: “It really depends on the personalities of the ECDs. If one person is so strong in terms of personality with leadership and ownership, then it's not wrong but some other people cannot work [with them] because they prefer to work alone. Also it depends on the set up of the company and team as well. Maybe some of the environments don’t suit co-ECDs. In LB at this moment, because of scale, the workload, and the team setup, one ECD would definitely be overloaded.”
Another positive to having two ECDs is that two faces mean two shots at good chemistry with a client, adds Choy, although the downside is that they cost the agency double, which explains why the co-leader set-up is a little more rare these days.
Li and Choy seem to make the most of it, sharing opinions on which teams to put together for particular projects and using their different perspectives to reach their shared goals for the agency. They say they don’t practice any kind of ‘good cop, bad cop’ approach to their teams because their personalities are both fairly down to earth and gentle. Choy has had experience of this in a previous partnership, however: “I am the easier person, I am trying to pave the way, encourage, motivate the team but my partner is trying to play sometimes the bad cop, judge things a little bit harsher,” he says.
If Choy and Li ever do show their “dark side”, as they put it, they know their teams understand that it’s necessary. “If we have one specific tactic, it is always trying to be honest to the department, and transparent,” says Li. “Especially right now with the economical status, keeping hope for the team is quite critical for the agency.”