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January 11, 2006
Account Leadership

If. When. Why. And How.

Over beers one night down in Miami, Jim Patterson, then JWT's Creative Director; James Patterson, now best-selling author, pulled me up short and told me two things he wanted me to know: first, even though I was an account guy, he thought I could be a creative director somewhere, but not at JWT, because that was his job. And second, while he’d never admit it to anybody else, he agreed with me that it is account people that really make an agency work.

He was absolutely right. Not about me, but about account people. Trouble is, we don't get it. We don't know that. And if we don't, how could anybody else?

Here's the deal: you do not need permission to "stand and be counted;" there's no need to wonder when "the perfect time for an account management revival" is, as some other industry pundits would have it.

Here's where you'll find permission, if indeed you need it: reach down and grab yourself by the proverbial cajones (this is gender neutral), and ask yourself why the hell you're in this business. Or try and remember why you got in to it in the first place. If it's anything less than a monster jones for a great idea, an addiction to controlled chaos and just enough arrogance that you think you have something to contribute – then not only should you not be an account person, you probably shouldn't even be in this business.

A desperate need for approval and a decent sense of humor won't hurt either.

And, the perfect time? Yesterday. Today. Right now, before it's utterly too late and we’ve finally given up everything except our dress codes and our ability to write status reports.

Without good account people, this business tanks.

First of all, think of it this way: we, all of us, are in the business of solving problems. We're problem solvers. We’re supposed to figure shit out, turn it into big ideas and produce solutions. To: business issues, marketing objectives, unrealized opportunities, brand platforms, creative briefs. Buzz. In the end, we’re supposed to sell something. "Good ads sell stuff," as my first creative partner continues to say. Bad ads don't. If your solution isn't producing something measurable (like, relevant attitudes, awareness, likeability, buzz, consideration/trial/usage/repeat, something), then it sucks. That’s it, that’s the deal.

The other deal is there's no one perfect solution to any problem. Might be advertising. Might not. Might be a promotion. Might be a well-placed article in the Wall Street Journal. Might be Britney Spears making another semi-stupid statement on behalf of your client's teenaged product. Whatever. Point is: whose got the broader view of this problem/solution thing? The copywriter? The direct marketer? The director? Britney's agent? Nope. Nope. Nope. And hell no.

Then there's the client. It's his business, his money, his decision. (Or, hers, hers and hers). Accept all this or die. BUT - it's your client! So, know his business, figure out how to give him a viable return on his investments - and lead him toward the decisions you and your agency are looking for.

This is all you, dude! The account puke. We're supposed to have a grip on the big picture. It's our job to understand the bidness. We're supposed to be the primo get-problems solved guys, the ambassadors of the entire agency, the ones out there in front, representing the clients' business problems and the agency's ability to solve them. The guy in the very hard place between the rock and the other rock. The man - or the wo-man - with the plan.

That's our job. Get problems solved.

So, where do you fit in to this problem solving equation? Strategic planners, ever since account people gave it up, "represent the consumer," and solve the complex dynamics of wants, needs, attitudes, beliefs and deep-seated, Freudian implications and produce brand platforms and creative briefs, targeted in exquisite, intellectualized precision and, if they're good, emotional messiness. Creatives, writers and art directors and interactive designers, plumb the depths of their hopes, fears and wannabe everythings and, if they’re good, come up with startling ways of expressing and visualizing these Big Ideas. And, producers produce it, media people plant its seeds in the universal consumer garden, traffic people send it, lawyers clear it, CEO’s nod at it in bemused acceptance, and husbands and wives and significant others everywhere cash the paychecks that emanate from this advertising business.

But - what about you, Account Person? You're the conductor - and you best inspire the whole orchestra. You're the captain, and you better have a bunch of pumped up fighters following you in. You’re the lead guitar player; play lead, but not so loud you lose the rest of the band. You da Man. You da Wo-Man.

Look, every last person in this business, at least the ones with a pulse, are in a...creative business. Next time you traffic managers are at a cocktail party, ok, at a bowling alley, see what happens when you tell your buds you work for an advertising agency. Damn! Where they make commercials? Cool! You're in. 99.9 per cent of this world ain't in this business, doesn't understand this business and has no illusions of being qualified for this business. But you are, you do and you are, maybe.

But, account dogs have to make it work. And here's how:

Lead. Inspire. Take responsibility. Protect. Encourage. Cultivate mutual respect. Think. Create. Invent. Reject failure. Find something to believe in. Sell: yourself. The idea. The ads. The agency. In that order. Say no. Say yes. Say yes but. Say, not so fast, if that's what it takes. But pick your shots. Assume the damned position.

Account guys (gender neutral usage of the term) have the hardest jobs in the ad business. Done right. Otherwise, bag carriers. (By the way, they're all hard). This is not a job of entitlement. It's a position of responsibility.

You have to earn it. And once you do, says me, it's the greatest job in show business.

I don't know who tagged us "account executives." Account manager is only slightly better. If we must be titled account anything I'd suggest Account Leader. Execute? Please. Manage? Only if that’s all you can do. Lead? Absolutely. Follow me. We'll take this big, fat, scary idea and convince our client that it will send his business through the roof. Truth is, I think it's even more accurate to think of our jobs as the person in charge of "making shit happen."

Here's how.

It’s your business. Own it. Take responsibility for it. Assume that if the agency fails, it's your fault. Your job is to make your client's job easier. Your agency's job is to solve problems, to make a positive contribution to your client's business. Period. If the collective effort of the agency is not moving the needle, some needle, it's your fault. This fear of failure is an exquisite motivator. The realization of success is a miraculous high. Go for it. And assume it is you, not your boss, not your direct report, not the creative director, you, that is going to make it happen.

Then, own the idea. At one time we were literally responsible for the strategic idea, anyway. Then we gave it away. We sucked so bad at it after a long while that account planners were invented to cultivate the Big Idea. Fine, but guess what? It's still our responsibility. If the brand is not fueled by a gigantic strategic idea then we’ve let our planner off the hook. Dig in. Say not yet, go back and get a big idea. Or think of one yourself.

(Definition of gigantic: New; scary; surprising. Different. Obvious. Simple. Not obvious).

Then, own the creative. This is trickier. And much more difficult. And utterly logical.

Think about it this way: on behalf of the entire agency, it's our ass on the line. We have to make it work. Because we're going to have to help sell it. We're going to have to gather enough confidence around it to convince the client that what we've got is going to make his life better. Or at least his next meeting with his boss. Find something about it to believe in. If you don't, you're a bag carrier, and doomed to compromised misery. If you succumb to this for an extended period of time, you will soon realize that this really sucks. And you'll go to bed every night feeling like shit, unless you're drunk or high. And then you'll wake up feeling like shit anyway.

But - if you embrace something you believe in, and sell that, you are on your way to being an ad man. This is cool. You'll wake up every morning ready to kick some butt. And even if you don't sell it this time, you and your agency will know you’ve given it your best - and so will your client.

Here is the best lesson in salesmanship I ever learned: belief in yourself - and what you're selling. The rest of it is probably what inspired "Death of a Salesman." By the way, we are all salesmen. Anybody with a heartbeat, and a belief - a salesman. You sold your kids on the idea of Santa Claus. You sold your old man on the idea of paying for college. Or you try to convince what's-her-name that pre-marital sex only adds to your friendship. Preachers sell their parishioners the really Big One.

And if you can't buy the philosophical argument, buy this one: you're damned if you do, damned it you don't. So you might as well do. Here’s how.

Earn the respect of the creative people. Then the client. Do the agency the great service of championing a brilliant, scary, innovative strategic idea. Provide them the gift of a confident client who’s expecting creative expressions of this idea that are going to blow him away - and who understands he'll have to wait long enough for it to develop. Earn this kind of mutual respect, all the way around; you'll be walking the talk, and you will find yourself in the rarified air of account leadership.

Good account guys can make creative people stronger and braver, and better.

And here's another hard one: do not make the client do your job. Do not make him say no to work that's off strategy, at the very least. Somebody inside the agency has to do that. If the creative director hasn’t said it by the time it gets to you, or the strategic planner, then it's on you. No matter what else, the agency owes the client solutions that are true to the strategy. Get it on strategy - the rest is upside.

So let's review: Proverbial cajones. Now. Problem solvers. Your ass. Own it. Earn it. Mutual respect. We’re all salesmen. Make shit happen.

You cannot make any of this stuff up. Besides, if not you, who?

(Alternate version of this article was previously published in ADWEEK)

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Patrick Hanlon is founder and CEO of Thinktopia, an idea task force whose slogan is "Better Thoughts Through Thinking." He has served as EVP, creative director, and writer at various advertising agencies. Clients have included Samsung, Barnes & Noble, Best Buy, and others. Patrick is the author of "Primal Branding: Create Zealots For Your Brand, Your Company And Your Future."

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