On hiring account handlers & agency culture

I had the pleasure of meeting the great David Abbott many years ago. His easy charm, worldly charisma & decent, human warmth are from another era. He is a true gentleman, a classy ambassador for the industry & has a natural empathy that enables him to be a very present leader through example.

An interview with Lord Bell from a couple of years back shows a wonderful retrospective over David’s work & there’s some cracking insight here.  The tribute to the agency he helped build (from staff) can be found at the very end of the reel. The culture, the DNA that ran through AMV comes through in both the interview & the final reel. It’s a fitting snapshot of a playful, joyful culture created by one the game’s greatest living craftsmen.

Personally, I’ve always found it really interesting that in order to understand where you’re going in this business it’s always useful to see where we’ve been. Check it:

On the subject of hiring I found this old interview with David that I think rings true for account people as it does for the any hire today. This quote is from 1968 I think:

‘The first thing I look for is intelligence. To some extent, you can learn how to write or art direct. But there’s a limit to how much you can learn to think. This is a business of problem solving. We work with an enormous quantity of data about our product, our market, audiences, our competition, the media. We must analyze, synthesize, hypothesize & come up with something that is both logical & persuasive. That’s something you can’t do unless you’re rather bright.’

Jay Chiat from Chiat Day develops this theme later in the 70’s:

‘We look for account people who understand advertising. It’s amazing how few do. Creative should interview all account people. You can always look at a creative’s portfolio but it’s tougher with account people. But the good ones can make sure the details happen. We should have account handlers tear out 20 ads they like & tell us why. Then talk about something they’re proud of being part of & why. The why matters.’

Personally, in interview I always like to ask the dinner party test or the lifeboat test. i.e.  which 3 people would you like to invite to a fantasy dinner party & why. Or which 3 people would you take with you on the life raft & why.  It stress tests the imaginative problem solving & natural curiosity that I think all good account people need to have.  I think I heard these questions in my first interview for a graduate position at Grey (thanks Melissa/David) & then later from Jim Kelly when at RKCR/Y&R.

Dave Trott reflects on a disagreement he had with Abbott in the attached. I can agree with the point that account people shouldn’t feel the need to be credited with awards. This selfless, duty bound bond between suit/skirt & agency is a sort of unspoken work ethic that is a key part of the role. Winning an award is a fantastic feeling but I’m a firm believer that ‘the process shows up in the room’. This is a buzz that all great account people enjoy: our integrity can be built from some smart problem solving, the satisfaction of nailing an impossible deadline, an honest conversation about the quality of the work, happy, profitable clients or just simply a good, well run meeting.

Making great stuff is really, really hard. It has been & it always will be.  The agency can have all the best ideas in the world. But unless you hire smart, passionate account handlers then these ideas will likely stay in the agency. And that’s no good to anyone – especially your clients.

David actually wrote a recruitment ad for DDB (before he founded AMV) when they were looking for 2 new account handlers. It’s a fascinating insight into how this great agency worked & there’s a lot that’s very, very insightful for today. I can’t find the original but here’s a scan:

And the copy here:

“I’m a writer at Doyle Dane Bernbach. We’re looking for two new account men. This is what I think you should know about this.

When they asked me to write this recruitment ad I said it was too busy. “Just say we need two account men and leave it at that.” Then I got to thinking. Chances are it won’t be long before I’m working with one of the new people. It could make both our jobs a little easier if he understood the place before he came.

And it’s not always easy for an account man to see how he’ll fit in here. Do creative people really run the show? Is it true the account men are just messenger boys?

Yes. Creative people do run the show. But they’re not all art directors and writers. No, the account men aren’t messenger boys. At DDB they represent the agency’s philosophy much more closely than at other agencies. So the first thing they have to do is understand it. And believe in it. Roughly, it goes like this: to be perfectly honest with the client. To give him the work we think he should have, provided it fits his goal. To be the experts in how to present the product to the public. Not to wonder what the client’s wife is going to say about the advertising. To have an honest viewpoint. Hardly the work of a messenger boy.

Inside the agency, the account man has to work very closely with the likes of me. I’ll expect him to know everything about the product, its competition and the client’s aims. I’ll expect him to give me all the information I need. I think that’s reasonable. I’ll expect him to give me all the time I need. Sometimes that’s unreasonable. I’ll expect him to believe in Doyle Dane. And to sell my work with conviction.

In return, he can expect an awful lot of the creative people. He shouldn’t put up with dull, ordinary work. Ever. He should expect an awareness of the client’s problems. Including those of timing. He should demand involvement.

There’s a lot more I can’t think of right now. But the general picture is this – there’s no rulebook at DDB so the account man stands or falls on his own ability. Just like the rest of us.

If you’re still interested, there are a couple of things I’ve been asked to tell you. The people we’re looking for will have had account management responsibilities. We don’t want trainees. They’ll probably be between 25 and 30 years of age. And it would help if they’d had two-three years experience on food or toiletries brands. We need them because we’ve put on a lot of new business in the last couple of months. And we’ll pay very well.

Please send a full resume to Bill Wardell our Director of Account Services. As soon as possible. I look forward to working with you.

Doyle Dane Bernbach Ltd. 62/64 Baker Street, London, W.1.”

The ‘contract of integrity’ between account man & agency is clear from this recruitment ad – as is the philosophy & culture behind the early work at DDB. It could also be said that some of this cultural magic found it’s way into the DNA at AMV too.

Account handlers from this era (as they should be today) should have a passion, a conviction to make things happen, to turn ideas into action & recognize that in a world with ‘no rulebook’ – it means you’ll stand or fall on your own ability. No one is going to teach you anything but to keep learning. David loved everything about the business because he found (and then started) a place that matched his core beliefs about the industry.

It strikes me that the key to having a joyful career in this business is to find (or found) an agency culture that matches your own belief system. And then to live it.


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