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EMISSION POSSIBLE

By Published on .

Put on your lab coat, your safety goggles and your disposable rubber gloves. It's time for a chemistry lesson on the male/female creative bond. By Cathy Madison

Harry: No man can be friends with a woman he finds attractive. He always wants to have sex with her.

Sally: So you're saying a man can be friends with a woman he finds unattractive?

Harry: No. You pretty much wanna nail them, too.

That good chemistry builds great creative teams is no mystery in advertising. Something visceral has to hold two people in thrall long enough to spend inordinate amounts of time together, achieve the intimacy required to finish each other's sentences, and ultimately produce broadcast-quality offspring.

So when these two people are male and female, biologically more prone to mate than to storyboard, how does the chemistry stuff work?

Margaret Elman has a simple solution to the universal dilemma. "We always work with the door open," she says. "You know, the keep-your-hands-to-yourself and four-feet-on-the-floor thing." She giggles. So does her creative partner, Charlie Tercek. The two handle the interview as a conference call, and indeed they finish each other's sentences, provoke each other's thoughts, laugh at each other's jokes and pretty much render a third party inconsequential.

Both Ogilvy & Mather copywriters, they work together on the subtitled IBM spots, which they claim is like working for a TV show, or "pitching 50 different ideas for monologue jokes to Jay Leno," as Charlie puts it. "It's more of a writerly thing," he explains, making no apology for the unconventional team composition. "Art directors everywhere are appalled by this scenario," Margaret adds.

The two first met while working at Messner Vetere eight (says Margaret) or nine (says Charlie) years ago. Charlie, who is officially on staff at the O&M/L.A. office but a frequent red-eye flier, started on the IBM account without a partner, but found it "hard, lonely and not as much fun as it should be." When he discovered Margaret on staff at the New York office, he brought her on board.

They say that, unlike opposites who attract, they are peas in a pod. They discovered they were a lot alike when they first worked together; after their long separation, during which they both "grew up a lot," they were even more like each other.

"There's a redundancy factor; it's like working with another me," says Margaret. "We go away, then we come back with the same stuff. It makes it fun. And it confirms that our ideas are OK."

More giggling.

It's good to be so similar in a working situation-it renders disagreements moot-but they could never be a successful married couple, they claim. It helps that Charlie is already married and a new dad, and Margaret has a boyfriend. Plus, they don't talk about everything.

"I like to think we have some boundaries," says Margaret. "We don't talk about anything really personal-unless it's funny."

So do they find each other attractive?

Well, yes.

"In a brother-sister, you-better-not-or-you'll-go-to-jail kind of way," says Margaret. "We really just both like things that are funny. We're goofballs. It's not a hard thing to figure out."

Harry: No man can be friends with a woman he finds attractive because he always wants to have sex with her. The sex thing is always out there. The friendship is ultimately doomed, and that's the end of the story.

Sometimes it's not the friendship that is doomed, but the creative partnership. At least the official advertising one.

When art director Karen Prince was looking for a copywriter partner back in the early days of Chiat/Day, Toronto, Izzy DeBellis, now at Fallon McElligott Berlin, got the job. Chemistry between the two must have topped the charts immediately; their first unofficial date and kiss occurred about a month later. Then they went underground.

"I didn't want a relationship at the time," said Karen, who was divorced. "We fought it for the next couple of years, but there were always rumors and stuff."

There were also secret smooches in the elevator, which both recounted fondly in separate interviews. "We kept the relationship secret for two and a half years," Izzy recalls. "It was also on again, off again, like it was wrong and we shouldn't be doing this because we were working together. Or one of us would get scared. Everyone suspected. Sometimes we would intentionally do things to go against us, like have somebody set us up with a friend. But then I'd drive her to work and drop her off two blocks away."

They always feared being broken up as a professional partnership, but they managed a joint transfer to New York, where they finally decided to live together. Karen said it was hard to "come out of the closet" to friends with whom they'd had close daily contact but to whom they'd always denied their relationship. Eventually, they were hired as a team by Wieden & Kennedy/Philadelphia, where they worked on Subaru. Ultimately, they got married on a Subaru shoot in Los Angeles.

Years later, people still question how they could work together so closely all day and then be together all night, too. "We worked well as a team," says Karen. "Our personalities complemented each other," citing Izzy as the more outgoing and talkative one. "At first our working relationship was better than our personal one-but they are a lot the same. Your partner has to be someone you like, respect and want to spend a lot of time with. We didn't find any problem at all spending all that time together. We found it harder to be separated."

Izzy says the sexual tension did indeed fuel their creative chemistry. "When we were in fights and not talking to each other, our work actually got better. Like we had to prove something to each other-'You think that's good? How about this?' It forced us to deal with issues faster. When you have to get an ad out in three days, you have to talk about that, and you end up talking about everything."

Eventually, the two experienced something other creative couples, including those unromantically linked, also describe. Because the bond is so strong, the relationship continues on past its normal ending point, when one of the two is ready to move on.

In this case, it was Karen, who became less enamored with advertising as the years passed. "I think I forced her to stay in advertising longer than she wanted to," says Izzy. "We'd been a team for five years, and I was afraid of what would happen if she left. She knew all my flaws and could make up for them. At first I was scared, but in some ways it was liberating."

She left the business nearly three years ago and is now pursuing design and photography interests in what little free time she has. Mostly, she takes care of their two kids.

"I'm the old man now," he laughs. "We built a healthy relationship and a healthy marriage," says Izzy. "And we did use our sexual tension-it pushed us. It was fun."

Harry: They can't be friends unless both of them are involved with other people. Then they can. This is an amendment to the earlier rule. If the two people are in other relationships, then the pressure of possible involvement is lifted.

Matt Myers and Cheryl Van Ooyen (see sidebar, page 27) have been creative partners for more than two years, during which they lived together for two months. With Cheryl's husband, Marcel. "I'm friends with both of them," says Matt. He says it helps that it's a great marriage of seven years standing. The three had moved out to New York together "like a little family," say Cheryl, and cohabited-along with a 135-pound English mastiff named Sadie-while waiting for an apartment to be ready.

Matt says he and Cheryl are "like brother and sister, in a way. We do gross things, tell jokes, just have fun like little kids. The other thing doesn't enter into it." He has had several female partners over the last 15 years, and he always enjoys working with women more than with men. He likes the different ways they come at things, the different ways they think.

But Cheryl is special somehow. He first got to know her when they worked together on a new-business pitch. He says he likes the way her head works, and her weird sense of humor.

Asked the same question separately, Cheryl says the same things-exactly. This is evidently a common occurrence, one that colleagues often use to try to trip the two up. "People bring us work separately and ask us what we think. We'll come up with the most obscure comments-and they'll be exactly the same. 'Oh, shut up,' they'll say. 'We should really be paying only one of you. This just isn't right.'"

She talks about how nervous she was the first time she worked with Matt on that new-business pitch, and also how fast her nervousness went away. "Ideas just flew out of our heads. We just completely clicked. We're kind of puppies from the same litter."

The two now shop themselves around as an exclusive freelance team, and both have passed up good individual job opportunities in order to maintain their working relationship. Not that they don't get sick of each other now and then.

"My poor husband," says Cheryl. "Sometimes he's the referee. He says, 'You two go to separate corners and don't even look at each other for a day.'*" She talks about how tricky it is to be a team sometimes, critical as well as creative, and how it's necessary to take time to shake the critical part off. But then it's back to work. She refers to a childhood friend of Matt's. "They used to throw dirt at each other, then run home and call each other. This is just like that."

Although rumors have occasionally circulated about the two, no one who knows them well would believe them, she says. She attributes them to a certain amount of jealousy over the creative chemistry, as if detractors want to explain it away by assuming something else is going on.

"Those ideas sound like incest to us," she says. "We know each other way too well, faults and all. It's the kind of stuff you'd hide from someone you were interested in, at least until about year 15."

Harry: This doesn't work either, because then the person you're involved with can't understand why you need to be friends with the person you're just friends with, like it means something is missing from the relationship and why did you go outside to get it?

Although Sharoz Makarechi and Adam Torio have recently split up, as seems inevitable in creative partnerships, if not in the other kind, they remember well the gossip mongering. Even when one partner is happily married with children, eyebrows go up when writer and art director leave early to catch a movie or head for a coffee shop rendezvous.

"Everyone always questions you because you spend so much time together," Roz says. "We were never attracted to each other in that way."

These two first got together in 1992 at the School of Visual Arts, where their student work on behalf of NASA got them into the One Show. Calling themselves writer/art director and art director/writer, they created their books together, then shopped themselves around as a team. After several freelance gigs and a stint at Earle Palmer Brown, they landed at DDB Needham, where Roz remains while Adam pursues a freelance graphic design future nearby.

They have been described as acting like an old married couple. "The first thing we have to tell people is that we hate each other, we don't even like each other," says Roz, adding that they argue all the time. According to her, the two are opposites in many ways, "two completely separate wholes at each end of the spectrum. But at the core, what we want to end up with is exactly the same."

Getting there tends to be somewhat of an adventure. She is very opinionated; he tells her to tone down. She has an idea a minute, scribbling notes in the margins of the brief before the meeting is over. He waits, studies things, makes sure. She was supposed to be a doctor and wouldn't have ended up in advertising without a scholarship; he only wanted to go to art school. She's from Maryland; he's a street-smart city kid.

"I'm more likely to do a long-copy ad, and he's more likely to do a fuck-you ad," she says. "Somewhere in the middle we meet."

Although physical attraction was not an issue between them, other relationships were, from time to time. When one was dating and not the other, the other sometimes felt "left behind," holding the ad bag. Or wanting to work because there wasn't anything else fun to do. Or maybe being just a little jealous.

"We often talked about how different it would be if we had significant others," Roz says. Sometimes they would tell each other, "You go out and get a life, and I'll get a life, and I'll see you in the morning."

Adam describes their relationship as "pretty straight, upfront. The second you meet somebody you make that decision. She was the only woman I knew I never felt 'that way' about. There was no emotion."

He says their relationship, like all relationships, was beautiful at first, then eventually became wearing as they got to know each other well and became more closely tied. This couple, like their colleagues, found it necessary to keep weighing benefits against liabilities.

"At some point, you just realize you can trust this person," says Roz. "They won't use information against you. Other times you wish it would be a more formal relationship. It would be easier if you didn't care. Every move you make at work, you have to have their well-being in mind, too, because you care about them as a person. Maybe this job would be easier with a partner you didn't give a shit about."

She wonders whether Adam might have come to the decision to leave agency life sooner, had it not been for her. They do agree on one thing: it's best this way. For now.

Roz: "But I absolutely miss him."

Harry: Then when you say no, no, no, it's not true, nothing is missing from the relationship, the person you're involved with accuses you of being secretly attracted to the person you're just friends with, which you probably are. I mean, who the hell are you kidding? Let's face it. Which brings us back to the earlier rule, before the amendment, which is that men and women can't be friends. So where does that leave us?

Sally: Harry? Goodbye.

Dallas Itzen & Patrick O' Neill

Until two months ago, the crowning moments in the careers of writer Dallas Itzen and art director Patrick O'Neill was a guy reading a newspaper on the toilet.

The scene is from a Kohler commercial, part of a TV campaign for the bathroom fixtures company that flushes away any cliches about the category. "The words and pictures bind him to the throne," ponders a VO as we see an exec saunter into the sun-dappled bathroom. Cut to him luxuriating on the pot with boxers around his ankles. "He decides a new award is in order," it concludes. "The Porcelain, more esteemed than the Pulitzer."

Beautifully shot, poetically written and funny to boot, the campaign marks one of the last things this now-freelance team did as Deutsch staffers last year. Shelved for a year, the campaign finally began airing nationally in March. "We consider it the best stuff we've done together," O'Neill, says. Compared to the long-running print campaign from Grey, which shows the fixtures as high art, he says, with the TV "they wanted to become a little bit more human."

"They sell toilets," Itzen adds. "It's not gratuitous creative. We thought, let's do something for shock value."

If anything describes Itzen and O'Neill's style, it's brutally blunt. Working together off and on over the past four years and producing work for Ikea, the local fitness club Crunch and the time-intensive but failed Volkswagen pitch, they left Deutsch in July '95 to escape the agency's frantic.

Yet, the work flow hasn't really let up. They're about to break a pro bono AIDS prevention print campaign, and have just polished off a campaign through McCann-Erickson/New York for AT&T Solutions, a division aimed at equipping CEOs and their businesses for the future; it seeks to "futurize" them, as the spot explains. Shot by Kevin Kerslake of A Band Apart Commercials, Los Angeles, and edited by Emily Dennis at Mad River in New York, the spot features a voice transmission from the future that's sharing advice with corporate America. "We didn't want to give away what the future would look like," O'Neill says, explaining the fuzzy look of the spots.

Itzen and O'Neill met at Ogilvy & Mather/New York in 1990, working in creative director Nick Cohen's group. While they weren't partners, they became friends and began hanging out together, frequenting New York clubs, bonded in part by their itinerant backgrounds. Itzen, 32, was born in Austin and moved all around the Southwest before enrolling at University of Texas/Austin to study advertising.

O'Neill, 30, is a native of Pasadena, and bounced with his family around the West and the Midwest before heading to ad school at the Art Center. "We both have chameleon tendencies," Itzen says. "We both can live anywhere and work on anything together. "

"We're both Geminis," adds O'Neill. "There's really four of us."

While they share an offbeat sense of humor, says Itzen, who worked on campaigns like Tanqueray's "Mr. Jenkins" and the hysterical Rax Restaurants radio spots featuring an animated spokesman named Mr. Delicious, she says with resolve, "We're both extremely blunt and we're not schmoozers. There's not one of us who's politically watching their ass all the time and the other person is very pure and creatively driven. We both laugh at authority."

So it's befitting that an Ikea camping about misfits, so to speak, marks the first campaign they collaborated on at Deutsch, where Itzen had taken a job in '91, followed a year later by O'Neill. The spots twisted the real-people formula to include a kid caught up with his parents' move, a divorced woman shopping for furniture and a spot about a gay couple.

Like the outsiders in the spot, Itzen and O'Neill refuse to play agency politics, a reason why they've veered away from pitching their own accounts or starting their own agency. They say they're ready to venture into writing screenplays, novels, you name it. "After 10 years in the business we love advertising," Itzen says, "but I think we need other creative outlets."

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