Are Your Account Executives Blocking Great Creative?

Blocking Great Creative

Agency creative people are in a never-ending quest to make the work more enticing, more appealing, and, well, more creative. Each client job or project is a new opportunity to do something new, different and wonderful. Similarly, agency account executives are in a never-ending quest to make sure their clients get everything they need from the agency. Each day is spent directly with clients assuring they receive great work, great service, and great results. The goals of agency creatives and account people are usually in sync—but when these agency people work at cross-purposes, great work can get lost in the shuffle.

How do you prevent this from happening in your agency? And how do you recognize these situations before your agency spends valuable time on something that won’t work for the client, or on work that the client won’t accept? 

The first step: find a balance

One of the great challenges of agency life is finding a balance between the needs, wants and vision of the client and the creative vision of the people inside the agency. If the agency’s internal balance leans too much toward the creative side, clients may feel as though the work does not accurately reflect their world. If the agency’s internal balance skews more toward the AE side, agency creatives may be stifled and unable to do their best work.

Your AEs may very well be blocking great creative if they are wielding all of the power, favored by agency management and issuing orders and edicts to the creative staff rather than working side by side.

Scenario:An agency allows hardworking, hard-charging AEs to run the entire shop, and agency management usually sides with the AEs over the wishes of the creative staff. These high-energy individuals mean well, but their focus is entirely based on the whims of the client… this month. Meeting their targets means that long-term creative brand strategy often takes a back seat to quick-win sales tactics. The creative staff at this agency quickly become frustrated, then demoralized, as ideas and execution are continually changed and often discarded. Highly skilled creative people begin to leave, and the quality of the work suffers another blow. 

Similarly (but less frequently in practice), if your creatives run the show but are not in regular contact with clients, their work may be off target and less effective.

Solution: Keep everyone in the loop: balance requires inclusion. Creatives must have a voice, and be able to connect regularly with clients as a vital part of the account service team. Make sure the creative director or art directors meet regularly with clients as you broaden and diversify your account service team.

Make good input a priority: develop a strong creative brief.

No project will be successful with a weak brief or missing input. You can pour your creative hearts into a project, only to find you were working on solutions to the wrong, or a poorly defined problem. 

Scenario: Agency creatives worked for a week on a project only to have it rejected out of hand. The client was not clear about a number of issues, and the AE did not get clarification. The brief was incomplete. Since the creatives were not a part of the early planning sessions with the client, they were hazy in terms of details. They forged ahead and worked up concepts with the limited information available. Inevitably, the client rejected the creative concepts.

Solution: Train AEs how to ask insightful questions at client meetings. Use a defined creative brief. Encourage the AE and the creative team to push for details. Conduct research and use account planning to get at the core idea, and loop in AEs and creatives before starting creative work.

Open communications: opacity kills creativity

Hidden agendas and backdoor communications are the enemies of great creative. People do their best work when they are comfortable and believe agency management is supportive. Even the appearance of secrecy or a whiff of judgmental attitude can sour the atmosphere. Second- and third-guessing are inherent in the creative process, but this shouldn’t be a business of veiled criticism, sniping or sabotage.  

Scenario: The AE visits the client with a number of thumbnail ideas generated by the creative group. He selectively does not show thumbnails, choosing to promote his own ideas over the best recommendations of the creative department. This happens several times, and the creative team learns about it… from a client. Good creative people begin to seek other jobs.

Solution: Always focus on the work and the results, not on individual egos; serve the client’s goals with the AGENCY’s best ideas. AEs should acknowledge all creative efforts on behalf of the client, and the CD should be part of meetings where that work is weighed by the AE and client. Again, make sure there is a creative person on the client service team, and make sure that individual attends all creative decision-making meetings. It’s critically important to train agency employees in the client’s business and industry, so they understand the client’s focus, needs, and their marketing and strategic issues. Become better at keeping client needs at the center of agency goals, and you will be more effective at producing great work that clients, AEs and creative people can be proud of. 

The key to better AE-creative collaboration: Pay attention to the client, and to one another.

Remember: the best communicators are great listeners first. AEs and creatives need to listen between the lines of client discussions. What results do they want to achieve? Are those results the best solution to the problem? Are you solving the right problem? Also, encourage clear communications within the agency. Every project should include a discussion of strategy, goals and tactics, and creative should ask lots of questions. It’s the AE’s job to bring them answers, not guesses.

The “You’re not listening to me” loop can be a huge problem in any business… and deadly in agency life. AEs may not truly hear what the client is telling them; or they may not translate the client’s message adequately to the creative department. Similarly, creatives may not listen well to what the AE tells them. 

Listening skills take a while (in some cases, years) to develop. In addition, many people absorb information better when it is in written form. Make sure that all-important client-AE-creative communications are discussed in a distraction-free environment; follow up by sharing copies of that communication to the entire group. This need not be fancy or official, but remember: some simple meeting notes can save a lot of time and trouble on the back-end of a project.

Hire “creative souls” as account service people

Would you hire an auto sales or service person who didn’t know how to drive, or who didn’t understand how cars are built and how they function? I would argue that the best agency account service person is an artist at heart. They might not have highly developed design skills, but to truly advocate for the work, AEs need to understand the creative process, see clearly, and explain how that creative will work to the client’s benefit. Your AEs need to love creative work and the creative process.

Finally, the ad business is a sales and service business: teach ALL of your people to sell.

Every creative person in your agency can learn how to sell. Selling the work is part of living in the agency, and the business world. This doesn’t mean they have creatively “sold out.” After all, your agency’s artists or writers can go home and be Picasso, James Joyce or Bob Dylan on their own time. Hold a few sales and marketing 101 seminars for the entire agency. Or have them do role-playing exercises to become familiar with the client service side of the business.

People come to work in the small agency business because they like the creativity and variety of the work. Keep them growing and learning by helping them understand all sides of the business. You never know… your button-down, khaki-clad AE may be a great creative person in the making, and your wild-haired/ Birkie-wearing designer may have untapped customer persuasion and translation skills. Promote better collaboration, listening and sales practices to break down the blocks that inhibit you from doing your best work for your clients. 


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