Feature

Is the account man really King?

Great advertising is synonymous with great creative and great creatives. But isn't the less-celebrated suit, he or she who brings the idea to life, the key player? Ed Morris and Robert Senior offer their views.

ED MORRIS - THE CREATIVE'S VIEW

It seems increasingly naive to place such definitive titles as "account man" or "creative person" or "planner" or even "CEO" on anyone now. The boundaries get fuzzier, the talents get broader. More is demanded of all of us. These titles seem to even sound old-fashioned and probably do more to hinder progress and evolution than give clarity.

But I've been asked to make a case in defence of the "account man" being the most important person in making great creativity. I might just be a sucker for wanting to attempt the impossible, but I'll give it a go.

If there is such a thing as the definitive "account man", I think that they are generally the most important person in making great advertising. And here is why. First, there are no advertising agencies out there with no business and brilliant work. There are plenty out there with below-average work and lots of business.

For an agency to be brilliant, it needs brilliant creativity. But there are thousands of ads made a year that work really well but are deemed by the general public and the awards juries to be creatively rubbish. I think that whoever is primarily responsible for the business is the most important person in an advertising agency. It's a business. Sure, there are agencies that strike the balance right on all counts, and that's the ideal. But the point I am making is this, and history has proved it: the functioning, profitable, averagely creative agency will always pop out the odd bit of brilliant work in time down to the law of averages. The supposedly brilliant creative agency with no business will never make any great work.

In my experience of making good advertising from the perspective of creative input (only), the job isn't that hard. But ... I have learnt that it's no good having an idea; it's getting it from one place to another that counts. That's why the account man is the most important person to making great advertising.

A Welsh proverb says: "He who would be a leader must be a bridge." Good account men make excellent bridge-builders; getting the client from where they are to where they never dreamed they could be. This in itself is a different type of very creative talent. That's why the account man is the most important person to making great advertising.

This isn't just about specialisation; I think that the creative talent is a very focused and fine one. But I think the great account man has talents, skills and gifts that are broader and more applicable to life in general, and probably more useful. The account man's skills are borne from a sort of psychological wholeness or functionality, whereas the creative person's skill is borne more from a kind of twisted perspective of dysfunctionality.

Again, the great account man knows how to traverse the gap between the two. He's the bridge. I think, quite classically, Frank Lowe was one of these mediators between commerce and creativity. I think that great leaps and vision come from that dynamic. It's when you can take two entirely different worlds and put them together to make or provide something new.

Of course, this is about definitions and, of course, the people in our business who operate this broadly are so much more than just account men. But the ones who do are more generally the ones with a front foot firmly in the world of business.

To think creatively is to be able to think irresponsibly, to think against the grain, to think like a child. I think great creativity comes from being free of the restraint of pragmatism. I think creative people need to be able to reserve the right to believe that it's never too late to change everything. To feel comfortable feeling the doubt as the consensus forms around the work. But this type of thinking applied to the world of relationships and negotiation is dangerous. That's why the account man is the most important person in the agency for me.

As an aside, but equally important ... I have learnt what Joseph Heller knew when he wrote "The enemy is anybody who's going to get you killed, no matter which side he's on", and that is why the account man will always remain incredibly important and, of course, my very best friend.

So, to sum up: the account person at their best is the grand orchestrator between creativity and commerce. They are the circumference, the patron of the sum of the parts, and, through all this, they make themselves the most important single person in producing great advertising.

- Ed Morris is the former executive creative director of Lowe London.

ROBERT SENIOR - THE SUIT'S VIEW

Is the most important person to making great advertising the account man? At our best, we are a precise industry in thought and craft. At our worst, we ask questions like this. Two minor complaints before trying to answer it. First, in searching for "the most important person", the question pre-supposes advertising as a soloist pursuit, in which individuals can claim full bragging rights. That they frequently do - you know who you are - is not up for debate. That they deserve it, is. The best agencies work in teams (cf. Mother's credits).

Second, and more prosaic, is the rather casual use of the word "great", implying that we all bathe in great ads as part of our daily ablutions. The "great" virus is all around us ("We had a great meeting", "We presented great work") and has now depressingly permeated the IPA.

Great, by definition, stands out as the exception. The Great Wall of China richly deserves the moniker - it's a wall you can see from space! Greatness in advertising lives on way beyond its airtime ... for decades. And there are very few truly great ads. One a year at most. Pedantic perhaps, but cathartic.

But let's indulge the question for a moment: Is the account man the most important person in the making of great advertising? As an account man who loves the job and is achingly aware that we're never on the podium, it's tempting to agree, submit and take the credit. But I won't.

True, the account man oils the engine, gets everyone on board and drives the (tired) bus metaphor. In this respect, the account man is often the critical force of an agency. But this is more a generic operational truth and not necessarily related to the noble and successful pursuit of great advertising. Just as the salesman is hamstrung by the quality of the goods they sell, the account person will always be limited or defined by the people around him/her. A "great" account man in a mediocre agency may be responsible for sustaining the agency, but, in so doing, unwittingly suffocates the industry.

You see, the suit's primary instinct is survival, and the good ones do what they can to keep clients - in the absence of the end product, they resort to whatever tricks they have by way of substitute. After all, nature abhors a vacuum, and nonsense invariably fills it - cue the account man shuffle: repackaged business strategies, a new process ("which we call ..."), a new restaurant or, most damaging, faux theories.

A commendable instinct for survival - one that wins peer group reward and applause - accelerates the industry's demise, as the quality (and effectiveness) of the creative output is diluted one drop at a time.

So, is the account man the most important person to making great advertising? No, because although he or she drives the bus, without the fuel, the bus goes nowhere. The fuel, of course, being the creative output. Great work comes from (or via) the creative director. From what I can tell, there is simply no substitute for the likes of John Hegarty, Dan Wieden, David Abbott, Robert Saville or Richard Flintham. They have the insatiable curiosity and urge to delight, surprise, zag to everyone else's zig.

An idea is born delicate and flawed. The creative director sees what others don't; they nurture the idea, give it strength until the idea takes on a force of its own, becoming the team's inspiration. It feeds the energy, it unites, galvanises; it becomes a cause. And then, as if by magic, it makes a thundering difference to the client's business.

No great idea was ever borne out of a wish or need to "get away with it"; its force was never about "having a good meeting" and its point was not "to keep the client". Its point was to capture the imagination and make a difference. If there is one person within the agency without whom greatness would not occur, it is the creative director.

However, to leave it there would be to miss the point. Great advertising is the result of a number of like-minded stakeholders each playing their part. And if I had to call out the most important, it would be the client. The great ones trump us all. Follow them and you'll find consistent "greatness". David Patton (Sony), Phil Rumbol (Stella Artois, Heineken of old and now Cadbury) and their counterparts over the years at Levi's, Nike, Volkswagen etc. It's their money, their brief, their bravery and their career. This rare breed are instinctively drawn to strong teams and help make them stronger by pushing as well as giving, and by constraining as well as liberating. If we have to honour one individual in the pursuit of great advertising, it has to be the client.

But in the interests of precision, the real answer is that great advertising comes from great teams.

- Robert Senior is the UK chief executive of SSF Group.

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