What would be the skills ‘creatives’ look for in account people if we had the choice?
And would a client’s reply to ‘what makes a great account handler?’ be the same as an art director’s or a copywriter’s?
These are just some of the important questions I pretty much never ask myself unless writing a blog.
But let’s see where this goes.
If you look online for what constitutes great account handling skills you find this kind of list:
- Strong interpersonal skills.
- A polite, friendly and diplomatic manner.
- Excellent communication skills, both written and verbal.
- A good sense of humour.
- Good negotiation skills.
- The ability to generate ideas.
- The ability to prioritise and manage several different tasks at once.
And of course all those things are important.
But can an agency succeed, in the creative sense, with just an incredible set of creative minds (you) and some account people who can prioritise and manage several tasks at once?
We often talk about creative pixie-dust but what is the account person’s equivalent?
Maybe it’s you and you just need your account people to organise the meetings and take notes?
let me answer that for you, it isn’t.
Many creatives with reputations far more spangled and high profile than mine (not hard) have joined agencies to reinvigorate the work and left that same agency a broken husk of a human being, wondering where their MOJO had gone, because the agency just didn’t have the mindset, resolve or relationships to make the work happen.
If there’s no desire or passion about the work from the ‘suits’, as we used to call them back in the day, then it’s a much steeper ascent of that hill.
But a passion for the work is also only part of it.
As much as the agency relies on you to produce ideas out of a hat, you rely on them to make it happen and then as it’s happening make sure it’s not dead on arrival.
But are the ‘dark arts’ harder to employ these days? have all the tools of yesteryear been stripped away to leave just the bare bones for our account teams?
No lunches, corporate entertainment or even face to face meetings.
When I first meet a new hire from the account handling department my first piece of advice is always the same:
You don’t have to say yes.
That can refer to timings, changes, tweaks or any manner of client request. No creative likes to be given a mandate, because there’s nearly always a different solution to the one requested, something more sympathetic or creative that achieves the same goal. The agency should always be the expert.
The second thing is please don’t make suggestions in front of the client. What we call friendly fire.
Even if it’s a brilliant suggestion.
That can leave the creative person putting out multiple fires and arguing with their own account person in front of the client which looks bad if nothing else. Let alone the possibility that the client loves the idea.
But these are just f*cking-up avoidance skills. What of the dark arts?
My wife used to work for a fabulous account man, a real-life Roger Stirling, who was MD of the hottest agency in town at one time back in the 80’s: Yellowhammer
He was highly skilled at the I’m actually your best friend method of account management.
He would take clients out for lunch and get them drunk enough so that they shared their most personal details.
It’s much easier to get a great campaign through if the MD of the agency knows who you’re having an affair with.
Well, I did say it was the 80s.
That’s a little harder to achieve these days on a Teams call.
So what magic spells are left for our partners in crime these days?
I have been lucky enough to work with some great account people, okay let’s not exaggerate – pretty good account people – and they all share one ingredient.
That ability to walk in to a room and be themselves.
That may seem a little trite, like the advice you give your kid at their first job interview and not necessarily much of a dark art but everyone who has ever had a first job interview knows it isn’t as easy as it looks.
We can all be funny, relaxed and recount the odd funny story when we’re among friends and family. (Ok, maybe not all of us but at least we give it a go).
However, it’s quite a different thing to be yourself in front of fourteen strangers all holding a sheet with marking criteria on it. Their grim faces set against the wind as if to say, go on impress me ‘you pathetic cappuccino-drinking-softy-urbanite-liberal ponce’ as they look up from the laptops for a few seconds in the pitch.
A while back, we’d just been through a rather intense pitch frenzy and someone remarked on Phil, our President here at CDM in London, that “No matter who he’s with or where he is, Phil never ceases to be Phil”.
It’s actually a pretty cool skill, especially in a pitch.
Because as we know, people buy people and the more you can be a ‘people’ not a ‘presenter’ or even a ‘multi-tasker’, the better.
I worked with a legend of an account person (and friend) Ian Maynard, who always had a few other tricks up his sleeve. His greatest skill was self effacement and a deceptive lack of ego.
My favourite of his magic spells is this:
Never let the client be the only idiot in the room.
Even if they’ve just said the most ludicrously stupid thing you’ve ever heard and every bone in your body wants to slap them hard across the face, say something along these lines: ‘It’s a great point Jeff (or Marion)…and I totally agree with you. But frankly what do we know about editing? right? maybe best leave it to the experts.’
At once, you’ve not left the client exposed, you’ve aligned yourself with Jeff or Marion so he or she (or indeed ‘they’) feel heard but also got what the creatives want. IE: Minimal client meddling.
And finally there’s counter intelligence.
An old boss at CDM also had this insight about account handling. It’s not what happens in the meeting, it’s what happens outside the meeting.
I’ve always thought that was what truly great account handling was based on, not the meeting and the organisation part but the casual conversations and the relationship. And maybe there’s still room for that in today’s office-in-the -spare-bedroom workplace. I hope so.
I guess time will tell if the lockdown and the removal of so many dark arts has resulted in a scarcity of great work. It’s certainly curtailed some of the avenues for it to flourish but I doubt whether we will come out the other side of this with a noticeable desert of creativity. The best agencies will find a way and the best account people will somehow make it all happen.
Great ideas are rare, but the ones that make it to fruition intact are even rarer – and for that you need your own wizard or witch and you need the whole village involved, including their pitchforks.
That’s the real Account management pixie dust.