In every business - from manufacturing to service - there has always been a tension between finance and the rest of management. No surprises there - accountants are the folks who so often have to say the word ‘no’.
In creative businesses - where the major business asset tends to be a select number of creative individuals - this tension can often become palpable.
Why? Well simply put; 100% of the best creative enterprises are headed up by Creative individuals, and 100% of all Creatives do not like the sound of the word ‘no’.
This is nothing new - Pre Raphaelite William Morris doubtless had trouble dealing with his accountants. I say this with a degree of certainty because, despite his creative brilliance, his design company eventually went into liquidation.
And there’s the rub.
If accountants are unable to get genuinely involved in creative businesses - just how are those businesses able to generate that virtuous circle - of turning creative brilliance into an acceptable commercial return?
This is what the circle looks like…
It is clear that commercially minded accountants need to get involved and have some influence on the fee negotiation, job fulfilment, pay and reward schemes, plus winning business stages, to make this circle work.
The barrier that prevents this always happening is more than just the Creatives dislike for the word no.
It’s a personality clash - and this time it’s not just down to the accountants having a default setting set to anal.
If you Google ‘creative types’ you come up with a list of personality traits to describe creatives. "Energetic", "passionate", "bold", "intense", "likes challenges" and "sensitive"… For the typical accountant this represents a foreboding list.
The feeling’s mutual - it’s obvious that most creatives will not willingly choose to spend inordinate amounts of time with a person obsessing about late timesheets.
So what then does any accountant have to do in order to improve their opportunities to have more influence over the creative business they work in? How can they be that force for good rather than mild disdain?
- Be genuinely curious. Accountants need to take an active and sincere interest in the work their agency does - and specifically the work of the creative they are trying to relate to. It sounds obvious but so often doesn’t happen. If you really engage with a creative’s work, the chances of a dialogue will be far higher.
- Understand their creative pressures. Creatives are under constant pressure to deliver creativity, to ever demanding clients. So investing money that helps creatives to deliver better always pays dividends.
- Choose your moments. Deadlines are a daily thing for them - quite unlike the monthly P&L or quarterly VAT return. That means being thoughtful about when to ask for information or communicating something to them. Don’t ask for those overdue expenses when they are heads down with copy or just about to go into a major presentation.
- It means keeping initial conversations brief as possible. I always feel I get more quality attention when I have prefaced a conversation with "this will only take 60 seconds…"
- Talk their language if the word ‘credit’, ‘debit’ or ‘accrual’ slips out of your lips - you have failed.
- Show the reward ("strong in them is self interest " as Yoda would probably put it).
- No is not an option. Never uttering it will transform your relationships. This is the area you have to be really creative.
Here are a couple of examples of applying some influence - rather than none at all.
Never say no
Once at EMI Music, I had a promo guy who fancied a trip to Brazil to promote a band in his roster, which was within his budgetary right. My suspicion was this was more about visiting his Brazilian girlfriend and less about promoting his band.
When he put it to me I simply said: " That sounds a good idea - do you know that to recover the cost of the trip your band would have to sell at least X more albums?" I followed this up with: "I’ll leave it up to you to decide if that is a good investment of time and money".
My reward? He decided to forgo the trip.
The invisible accountant
You really know that your influence is real and present, when the creative director excitedly walks into your office after a client meeting and tells you: "You would have been really proud of me Mano…" They then go tell you how they not only secured more design work in this meeting, but also agreed a very decent fee as well.
My reward? Job well done and I hadn’t even left my desk.
So to all you accountants in creative businesses - adopt these lessons and this Christmas, you’ll find those quixotic creatives sidling up to you at the party - rather than the other way around…
Mano Manoharan, business consultant