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.


Pushing back

It’s a very sensitive one. As an account handler you’ll be managing conflict & providing a critical point of view pretty much every day of your career.

But how do you push back diplomatically whilst remembering that we’re in the service business. You’ll often play the role of facilitator to the client, to creative teams, to supervisors/managers but this doesn’t mean you need to be a yes man. You need to be the ‘Yes but…’ man. And master the art of the ‘Yes Sandwich’. 

What are some ways of handling these situations without creating frustration or alienation?

So you’ve just taken the phone call & are getting feedback that is challenging. First – before you go about pushing back, make sure that you have communicated that you “get” the issue or problem.  Many people will first assume that if you don’t agree with them, it’s because you didn’t understand them.  You need to work hard to defuse this & build some empathy early on. You have 2 ears/1 mouth & now is a good time to practice some proportional usage.

Next – whatever you do, it must be done in a positive and constructive way.  You need to keep the discussion focused on the content of the issue, not how you’re responding to it.  Focus on the underlying issues & try to slow things down so that can think.

In terms of push back, obviously every issue is unique and the push back needs to be customized to fit the situation.  But here are some generic things to consider:

  • Ground your push back or disagreement in a business-related reason.  Opinion is important, but if the client/creative/supervisor sees that it is the business that is driving your concern/disagreement, then it takes personal judgment and personality out of the equation and keeps it focused on the content. This is much easier for you to talk around & use props to support facts not opinion – eg the brief, the contact report, the email chain etc
  • Look for examples in analogous situations (in and out of the category) that support your case.  Truth be told, most people tend to be risk averse, and demonstrating what others have done in similar situations may lessen the fear of doing something new or make them think twice about repeating a similar mistake.
  • Have a recommended alternative solution.  It’s easy to say, “I disagree,” but it’s a lot more difficult to develop, present and sell a different solution. You’ll need to buy time to discuss with the team on alternatives. No one likes surprises – neither clients nor team members. It also is usually beneficial to enlist the support of a “co-conspirator” who is trusted by the person you are pushing back against.
  • On really big issues it’s worth getting everyone in the room. Take the phone out of the game. Write down the feedback/actions, work these through with the team & come back with a plan that gets you to win/win. Do not end up with a ‘someones screwed’ scenario where someone in the team has to carry the can for a shitty process.

On a final note, be sensitive to when you need to give up the fight.  If you are not going to win, you at least want to get to the point where you have not angered or alienated anyone, but you have gained great appreciation for having a point of view and not being afraid to stand up and support it.

Good luck with pushing back & if it’s done well you’ll build trust/integrity & develop the relationship for your agency.

Internet week NYC & Interaction awards

It’s been internet week in NYC this week. A useful round up of stuff can be found here.  Loads of great panel debates & this one in particular struck a chord & feeds into some of the stuff we starting discussing here. 

Also this week there’s been a bunch of cool stuff showcased at the interaction awards too. One of my picks is here:


Finally, Noah Briar has just curated some of his favorite marketing(ish) articles from the last couple of years. A great primer.

Advice from the Boss



This is a little old now (from SXSW in March) but I’ve just gotten round to watching the full hour long ‘keynote’ from Springsteen. It’s awesome.

The final section strikes a chord with an earlier post from today called ‘Advice from Dave’. But it’s much more poetic.

The Boss’s advice to young musicians is just as relevant to young account handlers:

‘Open your ears, open your hearts. Don’t take yourselves too seriously and take yourself as seriously as death itself.”

Then he continues: “Don’t worry. Worry your ass off. Have iron clad confidence. But doubt! It keeps you awake and alert. Believe you are the baddest ass in town and you suck. It keeps you honest. Be able to keep two completely contradictory ideas alive and well in your heart and head at all times. If it does not drive you crazy it will make you strong. Stay hard, stay hungry and stay alive.’

A couple of choice quotes:

“There’s no right way, no pure way of doing it. There’s just doing it…

“Everyone has their genesis moment, whatever initially inspires you to action…, my genesis monument was in 1956… Elvis on the Ed Sullivan Show. I discovered… that you could call upon your own powers of your imagination, that you could create a transformative self.”

And the full show here:


Advice from Dave

It has been said that all good account handlers have 2 ears & one mouth.

And that all great account handlers use them in this proportion.

The great Dave Trott makes a great observation around this point in his recent post for Campaign. It’s reproduced (in part) below:

I’m not a big fan of the TV series Mad Men.
 But my wife likes it a lot, so I end up watching it.
 Last week there was a sequence in it that I thought was actually very perceptive.

An account man is sitting at a dinner table next to a French philosopher.

The philosopher is cynical about advertising.
 He says haughtily “So, what is your job?”

The account man says “I’m an account man.” 
 The philosopher says sneeringly  “And what exactly do you do?

The account man says “Well what do you do? ”
The philosopher says proudly “I am a philosopher.

The account man says “I hear you’re more than that, I hear you’re very eminent in your field.

The philosopher raises his eyebrows, surprised that the account man has heard of him.

He says modestly “Well, perhaps you could say I am, yes.”
The account man says “In fact I hear you’re more than a philosopher.

I hear you’re a fine teacher, too.”
Blushing now, the philosopher says “Well, my goodness, perhaps that is also true.

Yes, indeed.”
The account man says “In fact, I hear that we’d all be a lot better off if we took a lot more notice of your views on many things.”

The philosopher is now thrilled and embarrassed.
 He says “Oh, my dear sir, you really are too kind, thank you.”
And he shakes the account man’s hand warmly.

And the account man says “That’s what I do.”

 The account man turned the philosopher’s view from cynicism to trust in just a few sentences.
By talking about the philosopher instead of talking about himself. 
By finding out about the target audience. 
Instead of just talking about himself and what he wanted.
Which of course is the lesson for all of us.
 It’s no good just telling someone what we want.
 They already know that.


The long idea

It’s award season & with Cannes just around the corner we’re getting some indicators.

72 & Sunny seem to be cleaning up with the Kenny Powers stuff for KSwiss but what I’m more interested in is their approach behind the work.

Cannes introduces a couple of new categories this year: Mobile (about time) & Branded Entertainment Content.

Both of these new categories are reflecting what seems to be going on with this Kenny Powers stuff.

The idea not only ‘has legs’ but is a whole world of ‘what if’ that tells it’s story across media. It’s a world that unites it’s parts into a very entertaining whole. More than that – it’s an alternate reality – that can keep generating content over an extended period of time.

It’s a long idea.

And it’s taking the rules of the beer category/docu-soap comedy & applying them to fitness in a post recession America.

In a world where popular culture is fueled by many temporary blasts of interest – it strikes me that this idea can keep on & on. The challenge will be to keep it fresh. And keep it pulsating with new scenarios – fueling the upward engagement curve & keeping it from dropping back into the chasm.

72 & Sunny claim that there all about making brands matter in culture – & it’ll be really interesting to see how KP can keep you entertained over the duration.

It’s a pinball idea. It’s surprising. It’s cross platform. It interrupts but entertains & ultimately engages with it’s alternative world. Like Sons of Anarchy or Game of Thrones you look forward to more ‘stuff’ from this world.

Maybe what’s so culturally interesting is that it pokes fun at a category that has been taking itself a bit too seriously lately.

And that exercise is really escapism from some of the more heavy going realities of office live. That it celebrates the heretic taking on the corporate antibodies & driving change with new ideas.

And that there’s an obvious tyrannical boss ‘vacuum’ left by the tragic passing of SJ. But that the archetype lives on.

Maybe I’ve been reading a bit too much cultural strategy but there’s something all the more transparent & human about this brand that no-one really noticed before this alterante reality emerged.

Now, that’s a reality distortion field for you .