Mark Foster / Copywriter

Words and ideas for all media

Space for ideas

It's been getting on for a quarter of a century now since I left London to become a freelance copywriter in the South West. For some reason I've been looking back with nostalgia recently. Those heady days of working in award winning agencies. The excitement of a new brief. The three hour lunch breaks. Ah, London in the 80s. It was a great place for a young copywriter to cut his teeth.

And then, when the agency I was working at decided I was an overhead too many, I was cast aside - cue violins. Now, despite the fact that I was already preparing myself to move away and begin life as a freelancer, this was a shock to my ego. Nonetheless, the payoff was useful and helped me set up in deepest Wiltshire.

What was almost more shocking was the complete change in how provincial agencies worked. I know things are different now, but in my day the London creative department had its own floor, which account handlers visited with nervous apprehension. Each creative team had its own office - and a comfy sofa to rest weary heads after liquid lunches. Account handlers were sent away with a flea in their ear by the creative director if they failed to sell the one campaign they were given to present to the client.

Things were not the same outside the capital. It was like a different industry.

My first visit to a provincial agency was in Cardiff. Three days to work on a campaign for Welsh Water / Dwr Cymru. How excited was I? The agency was all in a single open plan room. The creative department was a slightly larger desk shared by me, my art director and another team that was working on a campaign for dog biscuits. The account handlers at the next desk continually chipped in with their own ideas. I almost had a nervous breakdown.

Used to having the privacy to think, I suddenly had to share my ideas not just with my art director, but with the entire agency. At the end of the third day I was exhausted. The thing was at that agency there was nowhere to hide - neither physically, emotionally or creatively. Those ridiculous ideas we all come up but then discard along the way (or mould into something that works) had to sit there, naked, for everyone to pour scorn upon.

In the end my art director (who I had only met on the first morning) and I came up with some half decent work that the client bought and all was well. I even got paid.

Since then I have worked in similar situations and always found it tough. The fact is, for me anyway, ideas do need to be nurtured in a quiet little space. Once they're grown up past the truculent toddler stage they can be opened up to a wider audience - when they've had time to develop their own character and are tough enough and rounded enough to withstand criticism.

These days I rarely work in-house. I enjoy the mixed blessing of toiling away in my own quiet space for weeks on end. But when I do leave the security of my own office, the agencies that I feel most comfortable at are the ones that understand the fragility of ideas. They tuck me away with an art director to whittle our initial thoughts into something more substantial. After that we'll sit down with other members of the team and refine these ideas further into decent, hard-working executions. Then, and only then will we cast them out into the world, fully formed and far more able to stand on their own two feet.