7 deadly sins

Here’s one of those posts that’s been sparked by someone asking – ‘what’s the worst that could happen’. And of course the answer for most experienced account handlers is usually ‘everything’. Not that you shouldn’t approach the day to day with positivity – that’s the ‘sunshine can do’ side of what you do – but it has to be tempered with a healthy dose of reality. You’re basically paid to worry & anticipate issues so that others don’t have to.  Most account managers are often evaluated a bit like a diving competition – i.e by the mistakes they make rather than the value they bring to the table. And usually we’re pretty okay with that as it can foster a collegiate sense of being ‘a safe pair of hands’. So what are the 7 deadly sins of account handling? For one thing – I’m sure there’s probably more than 7 – but here’s some thought starters:

1) Not delivering

It doesn’t matter if it’s to a client or to a colleague. If you’ve promised to do something then you have to deliver. If you don’t it sends signals & you have to keep focus that this is a service business & you’re the front line. Being on top of things is a priority but more so is keeping a commitment. One tactic that helps you be double/triple sure you can deliver is to buy time before you agree to something – ‘I’ll get back to you’ is invariably better than ‘yes’. And once you’ve checked – check again.

2) No lies

Ouch. These will come back to bite you firmly on the arse. It might sound obvious but this (like the above) will torpedo the most valuable asset you have : integrity. Even worse you’ll make the team look bad & in a trust based relationship this is commercial suicide. It doesn’t matter how thin the lie – don’t do it – the bullshit will fly back in your face & most likely stick.

3) Overpromising/Underdelivering

Of course in a service business you want to be liked & you want to be the guys that get the phone call. But being eager to please can lead to over promising. This is bad. So bad in fact that it can become a nasty habit that unless you manage expectations around what you will/won’t do can lead to some serious trust issues in the relationship too. You might not even be aware you’re doing it until it’s too late. Ever heard –  ‘oh the work is great but they are tricky to work with?’ Well here’s the newsflash – great agencies do great work but still get fired. Why? Because the relationship matters & this is built on doing what you say, when you say you’ll do it & doing it better than anyone else.

4) Making clients look bad via mail/in meetings

No one likes a show off. Being humble, advisory, collaborative & accommodating even when there’s a tricky situation will win you friends in the long run. Digging in doesn’t move anything forward & you’re all about progression – of the work, of the relationship & of the business. There is nothing worse than making a client look bad in front of his/her boss – it could get you or the agency fired. You should be looking for the opposite – make them the hero & figure out how to make this the reality.

5) Not being honest about how the client really feels to the agency

We work in a people business & people have feelings. But don’t fudge or soften how the client feels in order to spare peoples feelings at the agency. First – it wastes time. Second – it will probably result in the wrong work. This is bad. Very bad. In fact you’ll probably shaft credibility with the creative team, the account team, traffic & not to mention management. You’ll also probably piss off the client.

6) Credit is for creative directors – not for account handlers

It’s an old saying but if you want to be a gunslinging glory hunter then you might as well pack it in now. Taking personal credit instead of crediting the team (and the creative workgroup especially) is no way to play the game. Your job is to make sure the client feels comfortable with the whole agency so that when you need to move on the agencies work continues.

7) Not learning from mistakes

I started this post by stating that you’ll be evaluated based on the mistakes you’ll make – not by the campaigns you’ll help facilitate. That’s true. But your real value is in learning from those mistakes & making sure that they don’t happen again. Whether that’s resourcing better on your account, managing expectations with greater clarity, setting more concrete timings or just being better at evaluating strategy/work remember that it’s largely on you when things fuck up. And you will fail. But use this insight to develop a radar that helps you avoid the blood, sweat & tears.



Shapes & sizes

Just a very genuine reminder from a genuine legend about the future state of play. For what it’s worth – the 2 key themes I took away from Cannes this year were:

– The independent’s are in great shape to make a difference

– Collaboration wins

A fragmented landscape means we can finally celebrate agency diversity where different shapes, sizes, partners, allies, friends, spell casters, digital dream weavers & analogue artists play side by side to make magic. One small group that believes in a cause can be far more powerful than the might of the many.

No matter if you’re in a troop of transmedial troubadours. Or in a high clan of cultural connectivity: there’s something in Dan Wieden’s acceptance speech (Lion of St. Mark) for you.


On cars & content

I was struck this week by the dramatic contrast between insight driven communication presenting itself it a 30’ TV spot & the same approach being refashioned for an ‘always on’ landscape.

In my opinion – BMW – a brand synonymous with performance & prestige did some of it’s best work many moons ago. A couple of TV examples below:

Now – taking this into today’s context & you have this piece from last week below:

The styling & setting are nearly identical but the form/content is repurposed to have more in line with the functional/insight driven drama that you’ll find from the likes of The Barbarian Group. The ‘zooming in’ on what’s interesting hasn’t changed but the long form content & storytelling that’s used to dramatize the ’wow factor’ has.

What struck me the most about this BMW spot is that it’s using some pretty heavy budgets (conventionally reserved for 30’ TV work) & it’s being invested in multiplatform content. Much like the wonderful gold cyber lion winner ’Only – The Liberation’.

Today there are just so many other ways to redeploy a budget that can amp up the storytelling, engagement , usefulness & emotional interaction. Arguably we’re now firmly established in what you could call an ’interaction age’ for communication & just a simple look through the car category confirms this. Look at this lovely piece of personalization that let’s you make your own VW Polo:

Or this app that turns a car journey with your kids into something playful & fun – courtesy of Toyota:

These examples are just a very small slice of the content that enables a more emotional interaction between brands/people in what is a very established category. To me it serves up as a reminder that there’s never a more exciting time to drive engagement between brands & people in culture. Everything communicates.  Hell – if engagement for a washing powder can end up being driven like this then surely other categories can take a leaf out of  BMW & Burberry’s book. 

Technology is making new connections more dramatic & innovative than ever.  The only limit seems to be our imagination. It seems like the perfect time to re-educate, be the flag waver, the advocate, the ambassador &  the sort of account handler that has a passion. A passion to take on incumbent business models, build client understanding and create the best possible conditions for truly heretic & insurgent work.

I read a piece last week about how the best thing that could happen to ’digital’ is that the word will disappear. That it’ll become like oxygen. I think Ian Tait opened the Cyber Lions award session with ’WTF does Cyber really mean today?’  And you have to agree that it frames up an interesting discussion when you look around the different categories.

I think on the evidence of the car category it’ll be really interesting to see ’one year on’ from today whether we’re really breathing. And which brands (and their agencies) are oxygenated/innovative & sailing proudly in ’blue oceans’.  And which one’s are just protecting a shrinking bottom line/business model & are left thrashing around in a ‘blood red sea’.


Dodgy excuse I know but there’s been a lot of travel over these past few weeks & a whole lot of action in Cannes too. Normal service will be resumed from this weekend & will be back sharing thoughts/reflections of a remastered account man. A handy book tip in the meantime:

Maybe he’s right: the importance of empathy.



Empathy is a very underrated characteristic.

If you think about the account handler as the centre of a very large wheel (with the wheel itself being the account) then you can appreciate that you have to understand the needs of many different people to make things happen.

What are some ways to do this effectively?

The best account people are usually very compassionate or at least are perceived to be – even when they don’t really feel like it.  I’d define compassion as an empathetic awareness of others – and in my opinion here are a number of things that can help you be more humble/compassionate – even when you don’t want to.

– Listening vs. Hearing – Listening is waiting for your turn to talk. Too often in conversation we only register the words that someone is saying to us while we wait for our turn to pipe up. That’s just hearing.  Active listening means paying attention to what is being said.  And then thinking about what it means and how you respond or react to it.  Try repeating back or rephrasing what someone has said – get some acknowledgement – and then move on. You need to engage & show understanding to be able to ladder a conversation or help spin it in a direction for your message to land.

– This can be a really important place to start a discussion. Ask people what they think – we are often so focused on telling people what we think that we forget to get their opinion.  This is particularly important in dealing with people who are not “type A” personalities or quiet people or people who are particularly thoughtful before they speak. You’ll often work with all different personalities in a big team & no matter what you might actually think you have to show people that you really care about what they have to say.

– Details really matter. I can’t stress this enough. You’ll be judged (in service, in strategy, in creative, in production) by the little things. So sweat the small stuff.  In conversation with people – take mental notes, use your calendar to take down key dates, take opportunities that make you see things. Pay attention to small details about people – everyone has some level of ego & it’s helpful to use this. The fact that you remember something they said or something seemingly insignificant about them is both flattering and demonstrates that you are really paying attention.

– Try thinking like Frank Miller (arguably one of the finest comic book writers of all time). Have you ever tried to read a person’s “thought balloon”? It’s a great game – but you need to make the effort. Ask – “if I were in that guy’s shoes, what would I think?”  Most people’s thought balloons are usually some variation on the theme of “what’s in it for me?”  If you have an account person who can figure that out and use it to position things to his advantage you will always be ahead of the game. You need an emotional x-ray to see beneath the surface of what’s going on & make it work for the team.

One final point on empathy: Bill Bernbach used to say that he carried a card around in his wallet and printed on the card was the phrase – “Maybe he’s right.”

Surely this is the best aid to help recall this most important of character traits?

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.

Avoiding the minus points

I was given a pretty clear  & memorable lesson in my first few weeks as an account handler.  I remember being pulled into an office by our head of client services & told: ‘You’ll get no points for doing your job well. But you’ll get minus points for this agency if you screw up.’

Looking back on this in today’s landscape what strikes me is that this can easily put you & the team into a defensive mindset. Yes – you need to be a safe pair of hands but you have a responsibility to inspire too. Being defensive (at least outwardly) is probably not the healthiest mindset to to be in when it comes to creating breakthrough work.

Yes – you need to check, double check & check again. Yes – you are paid to worry & anticipate problems. But being defensive isn’t always conducive to delivering the best working atmosphere for the creative/collaborative workgroup.  Today you need to be switched on, use your ‘what could go wrong’ antennae & be very, very present. Most of the time.

Woody Allen famously said that ‘80% of success in life is just about showing up’.  This is kind of true for great account handlers. You need to be in the game so that you can recognize where you can add the most value for the relationship over the short, medium & long term.

Whichever way you view this it’s undeniably true that your evaluation as an account person is too often determined by the mistakes you’ve made, rather than the value you contribute.

Get over it.  You’re in a very special club. You’re not just another project manager – you’re an account handler.

So, in an effort to avoid making big mistakes, here are some of the worst ones not to make. The hot seat will always be hot but some of these tips might just prevent a meltdown:

Forgetting to deliver on a commitment to a client.

Whether it’s not returning a phone call, missing a meeting or not making a promised due date, all of these not only are rude, but send a signal to the client that his business is less important to you than other things.  Recognize that everything you say or do affects your personal brand, your & your agencies reputation. I’ve had managing partners rip up contact reports in front of my eyes because I sent them out on his behalf without an approval. He caught some punctuation that was out of place & felt that it reflected badly on his reputation. He was right. I was wrong.

Client thinks that you’re recommending an ad/campaign to win awards for the agency instead of being right for his business.

You need to make sure that the client feels that you “get” his business and what it needs. You don’t ever want him to question your priorities. Focus on building trust with your clients. Details & commercial understanding are the foundation on which trust is built. Win trust. Build relationships. Make great work happen.

Client catches you in a lie.

Don’t tell lies. Nothing shafts your integrity faster than if you get caught in one & you probably won’t recover from it. Even if it’s small your honesty (and your value) has been compromised. Tell the truth because it’s the right thing to do (and easier to remember). If you lie or stretch the truth, only bad things can come of it. You make the client angry, you’ll lose credibility and you make the agency look bad.

Failure to keep your boss informed (about the good and the bad).

It’s not necessary that you tell your supervisor everything, but you should use your judgment to determine what he needs to know. You never want to have your boss be in the position of not knowing something he should know when he is talking to the client. It also enables your boss to be appropriately proactive.

“Dissing” the agency to the client.

Trying to get on the client’s good side by “dissing” the agency is a bad idea (even if the client is in agreement). If you do this, in the long-term the client is likely to form a negative opinion of you and the agency. Try to be a “glass half-full, not a glass half-empty” kind of account person.

Do your timesheets & incentivize your team to do them.

Figure out with your FD how client/agency value is going to be calculated. Then make sure your getting the reporting you need to make things work. If you need to – incentivize the team for doing their time reporting & set an example yourself. If this means taking advantage of ‘the golden hour’ then do it.

Overpromising and under delivering.

We always want to be in the position of exceeding the client’s expectations. If we oversell and set expectations unrealistically high, we look bad as an agency and start to erode our credibility with the client if we don’t live up to our promise.

Making your client look bad in front of his boss.

Nothing sinks your ship faster than this one. The same goes for making your boss look bad in front of his boss. There is little or nothing to be gained by making your client look bad in front of his boss.  It’s a good way to get the agency fired and even if that doesn’t happen, the client will never forget it. And the client’s boss is likely to disapprove of the behavior. Strive for the opposite. Make your client look like a hero in front of his boss. It’s likely to pay dividends in the long run. The same with your manager too.

Not being straightforward to the agency about how the client really feels

Be honest. Be clear. Again – you’re all about personal integrity & your being paid for your point of view. So have one – internally & with your clients. Don’t fudge or soften how the client feels in order to spare people’s feelings at the agency. First, it wastes valuable time. Second, it can result in the wrong work being done. Third, you’ll lose credibility internally, especially with your creative teams (and most likely with your planners, managers, account execs etc).

Taking personal credit instead of crediting the agency teams

Besides being wrong (and selfish), this behavior works against our objective of having the client believe that the agency is indispensable, not any one individual. While clients will always gravitate to specific people on the account, we need to make sure that they feel great about the entire agency so they do not get worried when we have to make a personnel change.

Bad-mouthing the client

Irrespective of client behavior or decisions, it is never a good idea to dis the client back at the agency. It sets a bad example for junior people. It creates poor morale. And, if it ever gets back to the client, it runs the risk of disastrous repercussions.

Account management can and should add real value to the client relationship and the quality of our product. Knowing what mistakes to avoid, can help maintain a strong and complete relationship with the client that can last a long time.

It’s generally accepted that creativity is all about embracing failure faster. Wayne Gretzy famously said that you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. Great account people foster this rapid failure with their teams & remove the culture of fear so that great work has the best conditions to develop.

Great account people recognize that failure in the agency is a good thing.

But failure in front of the client can be disastrous.