The Art of the Hyphen

Every month, some conference, roundtable, festival interview or trade column presents another “thought leader” offering a jargon-infested declaration stating that whatever you currently accept as normal is dead now.

The AOR is dead. The 30-second spot is dead. Creative Departments are dead. The commercial production company is dead. Print and radio are dead. Storytelling is dead. Your marketing model is dead. All soon to be replaced by whatever the heck that particular pundit is currently schilling.

I know it’s a sexy, ballsy way to make your case but F all the DOA. Are you really adding something? This is people’s livelihoods you’re talking about.

We all know that every production company, every Agency Producer and every Cost Consultant is now muttering the same nervous refrain that “Clients are expecting $800,000 in production for $200,000. And somebody is going to find a way to give it to them”. 

Yep.  But, rather than an ominous death knell, some very interesting “somebodies” are being born into the world of content creation.

Brands now have a literal Cheesecake Factory-sized menu of ways to get stuff made. Which I think is fantastic. The more ways brands have to make things, the less excuse any of us has for turning out crappy content.

Consolidation seems to be the skeleton key. Production companies bringing on creative teams. Agencies bringing directors and editors in-house. Brand consultancies hiring producers. PR firms now producing broadcast content. Strategic consultancies taking on execution. Experiential marketers creating films. Whoever has a storytelling capacity is out there telling them. Often, these multi-skillsets reside under one skull. Meaning, specialization has become considerably less special.

I call it The Art of the Hyphen.

The Art of the Hyphen is the ability to do more than one thing—at a high level. And this meta-model is emerging fast. Just look at today’s younger agency creatives. They don’t sit around waiting for someone to anoint them or hand them new titles. They learn more than one discipline, grab the ball and run. The Writer-Producer. Planner-Art Director. Designer-developer. Director-Cinematographer. Writer-Director. CCO-CEO. The list goes on. This is not where things are going. This is where things are. Rather than aspirational, it is head-slappingly practical. And it makes me very, very happy.

I began my career as a copywriter with a film degree in hand. I wanted to write, direct, edit, finish and launch content. This was my training. And the advertising portfolio sequence I completed helped me synthesize brand stewardship into the mix.

But, the second I arrived at an agency, the cubicle walls shot skyward. No copywriter could direct. An art director could not write.  No creative below a CD level could speak to clients.  Directors could never engage a client or help in creative development. And CDs, GCDs and ECDs needed to brush their innate talents aside and relegate themselves to oversight. We were expected to be multimedia but never multi-disciplinary. Trans-genre but never trans-skillset. These were the same years in which Quentin Tarantino wrote-directed-produced-starred in “Reservoir Dogs”, for crying out loud! I could not understand why so few people in the brand world looked at storytelling holistically.

In the entertainment business the Writer-Director has long been the darling of every Oscar, Emmy, Golden Globe and Independent Spirit Award ceremony. From Wes Andersen to Spike Jonze to Nora Ephron to Spike Lee to Alfonso Cuaron to scores of other Hyphenates, the evidence clearly indicates that, In the right hands, this model really, really, really works.

And, in this new Platinum Age of Television, the Showrunner is a Swiss Army Knife of a creative mind that juggles writing, directing, producing, executive producing, story breaking, postproduction supervision and studio relations while being the literal face of his/her show in the trade press. Weekly. Did he/she just stumble into the deep end of the pool? Or did the culture of that business invite them there? I think we all know the answer to that. 

They’re mutants, these people. X Men. X Women. They re-constitute fear into a singular, cohesive vision with a steady pair of hands that does not accept that awkward baton pass between thinker and maker. They represent efficiency without compromise. Passion over timidity. Accountability not land grab. 

These entertainment world Hyphenates create the very pop culture resonance we Ad people dream about. Why else would we keep trying to lure them into directing branded content? To help them pay for a new boat? Hell, I hope not. I think--in our gut--we’ve always trusted big-brained, clear-eyed, committed, accountable, end-to-end storytelling.

We innately believe in The Art of the Hyphen. Yet we are late-ass adopters.

The hyphen is not merely a slice of punctuation. It is a powerful demonstration of 21st century, badass can-do-ness. It is weapons-grade aptitude. Admittedly, it may not be for everybody and no one is telling you that you’re extinct without two hats. There’s great honor in dedicating yourself to refining a singular craft, collaborating with others or inviting a fresh pair of eyes and ears to something.

But the hyphen is accountability dialed up to 11. And, in this hyper-competitive, blame-rich industry, it’s unquestionably wise to be 200% competent. Call it future-proofing if you want.

When you become a Hyphenate—and I mean the real deal—you aren’t just adding a title. You’re eliminating a line item in the budget. The prolonged partner search. The extra week of production. The question mark. The buck to pass. The excuse for failure. And you’re adding value. Because, let’s face it: Sometimes that baton can become a hand grenade.

One of the best reasons to earnestly Hyphenate is that it helps you to understand the challenge and craft of those you’re currently collaborating with. Empathy is a massive part of the creative process.

In the same way that our brothers and sisters in Hollywood, Burbank, Park City and Tribeca have road-tested this notion, the ad world Hyphenate can be that faster-leaner-nimbler-no compromise option as well. And, let’s not forget that those “YouTube Influencers” your clients are salivating over are all Hyphenates too.

Lurking in the shadows of skepticism, these X Men and X Women and trans-creatives are in our midst now, dying to stretch their legs, pull one hand out from behind their backs and fulfill a creative vision. Let’s let them.

The Art of the Hyphen isn’t about slapping a DOA on the toe of the old way. And it’s not about self-aggrandizement, seeking extra credit or bragging rights. A truly dedicated and qualified Hyphenate is about story, not glory.

Hyphenation is happening, folks. You are wise to happen along with it. But, does it mean something else must be pronounced dead?

Honestly, I’d love to proclaim that fear, waste, obsolescence and the old “church and state” model are quickly going the way of a parrot in a classic Monty Python sketch.

Rung down the curtain and joining the choir invisible”.

Or, “…be”.


Tim Roper is a 20-year agency veteran who is now the Founder-Creative Director and Lead Writer-Director at F. Yeah & Associates, a branded Content Engine that is home to Writers, Directors and--you guessed it--Writer-Directors.