Deutsch creative team Stephen Lum (AD) and Liz Cartwright (CW) know each other well. They attended Creative Circus together. They worked together in Montreal and Amsterdam. And just last year, they got hitched.
I spoke to Liz and Stephen about their first project, how they settle creative differences (Spoiler: get lunch), and why being married to your work partner might make perfect sense after all.
Austin: Let’s start from the beginning. How did you two meet?
Stephen: It actually started when we were in grad school at Creative Circus in two thousand… a long time ago. We met through mutual friends. Liz was actually on a date with another guy. We were at a poker game at our friend’s house. And then I saw her and we talked for a little bit, and things just kinda grew from there.
Austin: Did you work on any projects at school together?
Liz: Not until we were forced in a situation. It’s something that conventional wisdom would say don’t do anything like that, so we avoided it. But we ended up having to go to Michigan because [Stephen's] grandmother passed away and I still had a project due and I needed partner. Stephen being an art director stepped up and it ended up being really fun and probably one of the best things we did throughout school, so that’s the first moment we realized there is actually like a creative…
Liz: Compatibility as well.
A: What was the next step after that?
L: I was able to graduate early cause Stephen helped me put my book together. And we decided, well let’s just try to become a team and see what happens, and within a week we got our first kind of freelance job at a little agency in Atlanta called 22Squared. We were there for a month and a half, then we decided to go to a book review in San Francisco, hoping to get a job in San Francisco, and ended up getting a job in Montreal from that. Instantly. And since the decision of ‘well let’s pair up’ it was just a really easy thing to find a job together.
A: I’d love to hear some specifics on some of the tensions that could arise being partners in life and in work. Did you discuss specifics?
L: I think when we were trying to decide whether or not to become partners we looked at all the problems that could potentially become from not being partners. If we ended up getting jobs in separate cities, for example, how that would play out. And if we were ever put in the position where we had to choose our relationship over our career, or vice versa, and that to us sounded way worse than any kind of little fight we might get over creative differences. So we decided that becoming partners solved more problems. Of course, the challenge of figuring out the separation between being creative partners and romantic partners, finding that balance, is forever going to be a challenge. But the word ‘challenge’ implies something that is a struggle, but that’s not really what we’ve experienced, just finding the balance. It’s something you always have to be aware of. To avoid us becoming more creative partners and that dominating, because ya know this business does take up a huge chunk of your life, and sharing that with your romantic partner would kind of open it up to also dominate your romantic life. It’s about always having that conversation and checking in and saying, “Hey, maybe we should go out on a date!” [laughs]
L: I think that problem, even if we didn’t work together, would exist. If we were both working in separate agencies and being on projects that take up three months of your life where you’re working every weekend, every night, and you’re out on production, then having to check in with each other and making sure the romance is still intact and maintaining that would also be a challenge. But at least in this situation we’re in the same boat and we know exactly what the other person’s going through, so the fact that work dominates our partner’s life is nonexistent because it’s also dominating my life. We knew we’d either see a lot of each other or none of each other, and we chose to see a lot of each other because we like each other![laughs]
S: One of the things we were worried about initially is, if we were fighting about something at work or we have creative differences, does it get personal at any point? But for us it hasn’t. I think we tend to shut that off as soon as we’re fighting about some creative idea. And then the next minute we’ll be like, “you wanna get lunch?” “Yeah, let’s get lunch and talk about where we wanna go on vacation” or something like that.
L: Yeah, pretty much the only thing we fight about is little details about whether or not an audio mix is to our liking. But it’s not a reflection of our relationship, it’s not something that needs to become personal.
S: I think part of it too is that, because our defined jobs are so different being a copywriter and an art director, that we let the other person take the lead on the writing or the art direction, depending on what we’re arguing about. But we still have a discussion about it if someone has an opinion.
L: For me it’s most interesting to hear people’s reaction, “Oh you guys work together, and are married, oh that’s so weird.” When you step back and look at it it’s not, in my opinion. Because creative partnerships in general are marriages, in many ways, and it shares a lot of the same skills. The skills for a successful creative partnership are basically the same skills you need for a successful marriage or relationship. Trusting, give and take, and not letting it be about winning or being right. And respecting each others opinions and points of view. It’s really just the same skills set. And also when you look at a lot of other successful creative pairings in this agency, they’re together all the time and they are very much…people make the joke saying ‘this is my husband, this is my work husband.” So putting in those long days aren’t nearly so bad cause you’re not missing out on something else at home.
A: How about your dog, Stella. How did she arrive?
L: I was a single mother with Stella. [Laughs]
S: For like a couple weeks.
L: For like two weeks. Right before I met Stephen I adopted Stella, she was six months old from a rescue group, and she, after Steve, is the love of my life. We’ve moved her from Atlanta to Montreal, from Montreal to Amsterdam, from Amsterdam back to Montreal, to LA. So she’s a very well traveled dog.
S: When we started dating I would bribe Stella with treats.
L: Must love dogs.
A: You were in Amsterdam?
L: At Sid Lee, they were opening up a shop. We were at Sid Lee Montreal for three months, and we had just gotten settled, and they were like, “Do you guys want to move to Amsterdam?” And it wasn’t even a discussion, it was like, yes.
A: How long were you out there?
L: A year. It was awesome.
S: Another benefit to us being creative partners in addition to relationship partners is it was easy for us to go….
L: And make those kinds of decisions. To be in your 20′s and be able to go to Europe for a year is awesome, without it putting any kind of challenges for my romantic partner, it was awesome.
A: Any advice for those who are just starting to work alongside their significant other?
L: Yeah, if it’s something you really want to make work, then you have to put that other person first. What their needs are, what they want.
A: Do you think that [working together] feeds or hinders the creativity?
L: I think one challenge with working with the same person – I don’t think this matters if you’re in a romantic relationship with a person as well – when you work with the same person over time then you end up going the same avenues creatively. So it’s often a challenge trying to find, doing your part as an individual to bring new avenues so that the other person has a place to spark new things. Cause we tend to, every creative tends to explore the same path.
S: We may spend so much time together and be in agreement on all kinds of things, but we’re still two very different people and we have very different thoughts and ways of approaching things. It’s never boring or the same thing, even creatively.
Stephen Lum and Liz Cartwright are a creative team at Deutsch LA. See their latest commercial for PlayStation All-Stars: Battle Royale here.