Account handlers need to get back to the future

I’m going to paraphrase a post from the heroic Dave Trott. It’s full of usefulness about the way the account handler used to work & I’ll chuck in some commentary from my own perspective about how things fly in today’s modern, collaborative work environment. His original post was from 2009 & in that timeframe we’ve seen: foursquare, kickstarter, groupon, the ipad, emerging cloud functionality, instagram, kinect & socially driven business models. Not to mention a Facebook IPO. And a movement towards the internet of things. My comments are in  italics.

There used to be a time when account men actually sold advertising to clients.
The theory was that the best advertising was brave advertising.
Advertising that stood out by breaking the category rules.

Now it strikes me that in 2012 there really are no rules. Maybe not even categories exist in the same way as the lines continue to fuzz up through our own hyperconnectedness. If popular culture is driven today by velocity & variety then the speed with which new paradigms are set also continues to accelerate. We’re always on. And always learning.

Given that the client had spent a long time learning and implementing the category rules, this was not an easy sell.
Every time you broke a rule the client would point out the ‘mistake’.

The client needed someone to help them understand why you were breaking the rules.

Someone to hold their hand.

That was an account man’s job.
I heard it put as follows:
“The client knows what he wants.
The agency knows what he needs.
The account man’s job is to get the client to want what he needs.”

This has always been a gross oversimplification & slightly patronizing view of ‘the suit’. I talked earlier in the year about acting as a digital sherpa for clients. Acting as a plausible voice in a very confused room. A very good friend & former colleague frames it as ‘he who knows the most wins’. But if you can win without fighting & simply act as a friendly guide then your value will double overnight. If you don’t use Feedly yet (or someother RSS) – then I suggest that you get on it & turn deadtime into brainfood. You never know when a connection will be made from something you’ve read that you need to pop out in a meeting/guide a client/colleagues & add value. A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing – but the digital suit needs to be a very specific type of generalist.  

Obviously every agency wants a happy client.
There are two ways to do this.
One: do the best job possible.
Two: do what the client wants.

I’d now add a third to this. 

Three: predict the future.

They are the short-term view, and the long-term view. And now the longer term view.
In the short term the client will be happy if you do what he wants.
If it doesn’t work, he won’t be happy.
The alternative is you insist on doing what you believe to be right
In the short term the client may be unhappy.
But if it works, he’ll be happy.
So the issue is: happy client in the short term, or the long term.
If you do what the client wants in the short term, and it doesn’t work, you lose the account.
Likewise, if you do what you believe to be right, against the client’s wishes, and it doesn’t work you lose the account.
So, either way, you’re betting the account on what you do working.
In short, you’ll be left carrying the can.
So you might as well bet on the option you think will work.
Not just the easy option.

Now – in today’s landscape – it’s more important than ever to build in some future proof thinking into the relationship. This might sound like crazy talk. And maybe it is. But what I’m getting at is that if you want to keep the client & turn them into an agency evangelist then you have to breakthrough & build. A good example of this is what RGA did with Nike+. It’s a platform that broke through.  It was then fuelled by campaigns to build new behaviours. It’s the communication equivalent of the ipad. Making something together with clients that will fulfill a need that the consumer doesn’t even see yet. This is where future value will be built & it’s a powerful space for the accountman to connect agencies/brands together. This is what I mean by predicting the future. Buy a book on futurology & subscribe some serious future trend feeds with your new feedly reader. 

When I was at BMP I had a conversation with the (then) Head of Planning.
I thought the way we were using research made everyone  lazy.
Instead of being a source of useful information, it became a thumbs up or down on whether work got made.
I thought we should use research findings as input, but still take the final decision ourselves.
One of the agencies I admired was Saatchi.
They’d always done disruptive work, long before the term ‘disruption’ was coined.

I thought the difference between them and us was the account men.

It wasn’t that our creatives couldn’t do work as daring as Saatchi, it was that our account men wouldn’t sell it.
I said to the head of panning that I thought ‘selling’ had become a dirty word.
In his heavy Scottish accent he said, “So it should be. We’re not some shyster outfit like Saatchi. We don’t ‘sell’ work to a client.
We lay the true facts of research before him and trust his own good sense and judgement to show him the correct path.”

That’s where we differed.
That’s why I always thought one of the things that made Saatchi a great agency was Tim Bell.
An account man who actually sold work to clients.
That’s also why I thought one of the things that made CDP a great agency was Frank Lowe.
Another account man who actually sold work to clients.
Apparently, CDP once had to present a long expensive commercial to a difficult client.
Frank went into the presentation and sat next to the client.
The account man played the commercial.
Frank and the client watched it together.
After the client had seen it, he said he wasn’t sure about a particular part.
Frank said, “Do you know, that’s exactly what I thought. I think we should see it again. Play it again for us please.”
So the account man played it again.
Frank and the client watched carefully.
After it had finished, Frank patted the client’s arm and said, “No, I think we were wrong. It’s actually okay.”
And the client, reassured, bought it and ran it.
And that’s how important real account men are.
We can have all the great ideas in the world, but if the account man doesn’t get the client to run it, it’ll never happen.

And all we’ve got is a bookful of great roughs.

The definition/approach of ‘selling the work’ needs a serious look at in today’s highly collaborative model. We’ve always been about managing expectations & setting up a framework for how the agency develops it’s work process. This used to consist of updating ‘the status’ on workflow through the agency, stage managing meetings & orchestrating the different steps on a timing plan to get to the next step. Today it’s possible to bring the client into the different steps in a much more engaging way &  it’s actually a much more modern/grown up & relationship focused approach. Particularly if both parties recognize that we’re jumping into the dark. That the best ideas are found where we honestly don’t know where we’re going. That change is risky & demands ice in the belly. But that we’re in it together – like tandem skydiving or taking a team nightluge through the pitch black wilderness. Risk should be exciting. But we’re in it together to hunt down some change.

Finding transformative ideas together means that the old-fashioned nature of building up to a ‘creative presentation’ with all it’s ritual/ pomp/theatre  feels very outdated. This isn’t the 90s. A structured creative presentation into the organization is still vital but for your day-to-day client it’s possible for a modern account handler – and the workgroup – to move through a weekly process of review/discussion when making a new idea.  Presenting into the organization can even be handled today with a short film on the strategy/idea. This makes the ‘sell in’ to broader stakeholders viral. And if the idea is strong then this will make your future work/production much easier. Not to mention making your client look good. 

Because the client is building a relationship with a much broader set of people in the workgroup this is a real positive when it comes to anchoring the partnership around a shared commitment. Instead of the story that Dave talks through about Frank we can have more of a group discussion where the trust dynamics are framed as a journey of discovery together with the agency. Clients need to be on board this bus from the beginning but this is much better for the account handler. It’s much healthier than setting a unrealstic expectation that the agency has ‘all the answers’ & in turn both client/agency will be much better placed to manage the future together. Why? Because the future is uncertain. And in flux. And chaotic. Meaning that the best strategies & timing plans in the world won’t have a chance of making the step change needed if they are too fixed. In the idea making phase the remastered account man has to put in a call before & after each update meeting so that the expectations are duly set & any nuances are communicated back to the team so that the magic can continue. 

A shared commitment to ‘breaking through’ should earn a greater sense of integrity for projects & in turn lead to even better work.

You won’t give clients want they want. Or only what they need. Maybe, just maybe, you’ll give them what they will need & end up predicting the future. 


One response to “Account handlers need to get back to the future

  1. Pingback: Some thoughts about future value creation…. | remasteredaccountman

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