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June 11, 2003
Why Creatives Hate Account People and Vice-Versa

Superman and Lex Luthor. Churchill and Lady Astor. Hillary and Rush.

Just a few folks who despise each other about as much as creatives and account executives. Show me an agency and I'll show you an AE and a creative who want to beat the living #$%@ out of each other.

So where does this acrimony come from? Is it a grudge left over from some ancient affront that is passed down from one generation to the next like advertising's version of the Hatfields and McCoys?

As Rodney King once asked, "Why can't we all just get along?"

If you're a creative, you'll argue it's because AEs are spineless, sycophantic, back-stabbing, glad-handers with nary an ounce of taste, style or integrity. Then again, folks on the account side see creatives as whiny, manic, prima donnas sporting fragile little egos prone to shatter at the slightest hint of altering an idea.

Personality differences aside, creatives and AE's don't get along because they are pitted against one another in a seriously flawed business model. The goals and priorities of a really good account person are 100% diametrically opposed to those of a really good creative.

Take your typical AE.

His #1 priority is to make sure the agency is maximizing client billings. His #2 priority is keeping the client happy and the relationship hunky-dory. Notice I said nothing about selling creative executions. A good AE could care a rat's fanny whether an ad sells or not. He gets paid the same amount either way.

And here's the kicker. As long as priorities #1 and #2 are met, an AE might even get a raise by not selling work . There's absolutely no incentive whatsoever for an AE to sell an ad. Period. In fact, selling an ad may violate priority #1. By allowing the client to kill concepts, an AE increases the agency's billings by charging the client for another round of creative, planning, research or Cha-Ching! - all three. Crazy isn't it?

Conversely, a really good creative has a different set of priorities.

His #1 job is to sell award-winning work. His #2 goal is to just sell something -- anything not to start all over again.

Notice that a creative's priorities do not include billing more hours or making the client happy. Creatives (unless they're free lance) get paid the same amount whether they spend one hour on a project or 50. And to complicate matters, agencies always make sure their time is maxed out on several assignments.

So when a client doesn't buy work, the creatives are going to have to work late nights and weekends just to keep up with their other tasks. If this happens too often, (and it always does) burnout ensues. Sometimes permanently.

Inside every creative's head, there's a shrill, little voice warning him, "This could be the last great idea you ever come up with." That's why we go nuts when our ads don't sell. With the shrill, little voices in our heads and all, we're already on the verge of nervous breakdowns.

Great ideas do not come easily. For that matter, neither do mediocre ones. Believe me, concepting ads, unless you're a heinous hack who couldn't care less, is hard. And the thing that kills us creatives more than anything else is an AE who see ideas as the hairs on Ernest Borgnine's back -- plentiful and regenerating. They're not.

Then again, nothing ticks off an AE more than a creative who throws a hissy fit in front of the client. It jeopardizes priority #2 - the relationship. Then again, a creative who's a very skilled presenter is almost as bad. If the marketing director buys an ad right off the bat, it blows priority #1 - squeezing as much money out of the client as possible. This is why good creatives demand to present their own work and precisely why good AEs don't want them to.

So how do you resolve this age-old conflict? Should Colin Powell and Henry Kissinger step in and hold a summit at Camp David?

Actually, the solution is pretty simple. Unfortunately, most agencies are unable or unwilling to do what's necessary. To end the conflict, an agency must empower its personnel through accountability.

One way is to offer account and creative teams an equity stake in the agency and tie their salaries to performance. At the same time, the agency should bind its compensation to meeting certain marketing objectives. If it beats them, the agency and its employees are paid more. If it doesn't, everyone makes less. By doing so, account and creative teams become personally vested in ensuring their clients succeed. The result? Creatives and AEs suddenly find themselves fighting for the same thing - selling effective ads that will make them and their clients rich and famous.

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David Smith is rewriting the rules of advertising. As Creative Director of The Republik in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, David and his partners are attempting to re-engineer the agency model by creating what they dub “the world’s first performance-based, 100 percent employee-owned shop.” The Republik is generating quality advertising, and a little publicity, from the firm’s new business model. You may be interested, as Talent Zoo is, in hearing more from these pioneering, award-winning ad pros.
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