Over coffee and croissants at the IPA one morning towards the end of last year, some of Britain's leading creatives told a number of top agency account people exactly what they thought of them. No surprise there, you might think. After all, haven't suits had to endure tongue lashings (and much worse) from creative department egomaniacs since Dave Trott was in nappies?
Yes, they have. However, it's doubtful many creatives and account people live in a state of perpetual warfare today. Indeed, the breakfast summit arranged by the IPA's client service group was an acknowledgment of how the evolving nature of marketing communications is changing the way the two disciplines work with each other.
As the number of communication channels increase, and clients' business grows more complex, creatives are looking to somebody who can point the way. And that person is more likely to be an account director.
"Creativity is exploding due to so many new platforms, and it needs guidance and direction," Trevor Beattie, the Beattie McGuinness Bungay creative director, says. "Account managers are the people to do so by imposing some form of structure."
Andy Lockley, the senior creative behind much of Fallon's recent Sony work, is equally certain that it is account management that will provide the creatives' compass.
"As agencies move further into uncharted waters, creatives will come to learn even more from account people," he predicts. "They often have the experience that creatives lack."
It's a far cry from the days when account managers were seen as unproductive middlemen, to be treated with contempt by creatives, who regarded them as the client's bag carriers, and clients who often saw them as just an unnecessary expense.
As a result, account people became advertising's forgotten army. Unlike creatives and planners, there have been no awards to honour them; their names rarely get added to a famous campaign's list of credits.
"Nobody has been championing account people, even though their role is becoming much more important," Andrew McGuinness, the IPA client service group chairman, says. "The breadth of talent you need to be an account person has never been broader."
A range of factors have combined to thrust account people out of the shadows and into a redefined relationship with creatives that may well prove pivotal to an agency's success.
In part, it is down to the changing structure of agencies, where old demarcation lines have become blurred. "Everybody is trying to do everything," Ben Priest, the founder of Adam & Eve, contends.
"Everybody is becoming more rounded, including account people," he adds. "So much so that the term 'account man' is becoming redundant. It's a throwback to a different time."
Meanwhile, account people are said to be benefiting from clients' eagerness to have more access to creatives. Karina Wilsher, the Fallon managing director, says: "It's now all about breaking down barriers and working more collaboratively."
Some industry onlookers are suggesting that the process has been sped up thanks to a new breed of account manager, who are far removed from the clubbable types of bygone years, and who often come with a digital agency background.
Marc Giusti, the Good Technology creative director, says: "Some of the most interesting thinking I've encountered is from account people who have entered via the digital market."
At the same time, this new breed has been embracing new skillsets, all of them requiring large measures of creative thinking.
"They have to be able to spot opportunities, which is a creative process in its own right," McGuinness comments. "Also, they must be entrepreneurial, spot the money-making ideas and the opportunities for agencies outside their core fees.
"Finally, they must be a conduit and a stimulant to a number of creative forces - not all of them necessarily in-house - as they come together. That can require quite sensitive handling."
For their part, creatives need account people who are not only capable of leading them through the new-media landscape but who can also create an environment that allows them to produce their best work. Their demand is less for account directors in a traditional sense, more for people who - in the words of one creative chief - "will conduct the new orchestra".
Such ensembles may have many players, from the in-house creatives working on the TV campaign to the outside digital specialist and the company which is producing the experiential marketing. Armed with their knowledge of the brief and the brand, the account director must then bind them all together seamlessly.
A bullshit-free relationship with the creative department is widely agreed to be fundamental in this.
"Curiosity and openness are what creatives should expect from account people," McGuinness says. "What you don't want is for a creative you have briefed about a new banking campaign to come back with a conventional bank ad. If they do, you've not briefed them properly."
According to Charles Inge, a founding partner of CHI & Partners, the last thing a creative wants from an account person is negativity. "Enthusiasm and positive attitudes are key," he says.
The first thing is vision. "It's this that enables the creatives to see the brief in a new and inspiring light. That tin of beans needs to feel like the best tin of beans out there."
Undoubtedly, the days when many creatives were confident enough to boast that they could manage well enough without account people have all but disappeared.
"Some still claim they don't need them," Giusti says. "But what they mean is that they don't need account people who don't deliver for them."
However, whether or not account people are sufficiently trained to deliver is open to debate.
McGuinness says the IPA has done a lot of good work in this area. But he acknowledges that on-the-job training is not consistent, with some agencies devoting plenty of time and effort to it, while others throw tyro account staff in at the deep end in the hope they will swim.
The IPA insists that, when it comes to the training of account staff, it is not to be found wanting.
Account managers with between one and two years' experience are offered courses on how good strategic planning generates effective advertising, and how advertising fits in to clients' broader business aims.
Such courses are punctuated with regular workshops, where account people can learn more about the contributions advertising can make to brand building and how to hone their presentational skills.
And, as a result, the trade body fully expects agency backing for such courses to intensify still further this year, especially when making a commitment to the continuous professional development of staff becomes a precondition of IPA membership.
However, some still maintain that account management training leaves a great deal to be desired, mainly because of agencies' reluctance to pass the cost of it on to clients.
Giusti acknowledges the paucity of well-trained account people has forced his agency to look beyond its usual hunting grounds and appoint account staff from consultancies and design companies.
Against that background, the question that still remains then is whether account management can be learned or if it is intuitive.
"There are certain skills you can acquire, but a good account person knows things that can't be taught," Fallon's Wilsher says. "The natural ones are born with antennae that can sense an opportunity to be exploited, just as they can sense the thing that's about to go wrong."
Moreover, the best account people need to be able to ensure that the passions and tensions found within the agency don't become corrosive, but are harnessed in a positive way.
"What account directors need most is a contagious energy of a kind that's reflected in what appears on a poster or on a screen," McGuinness argues. "When you see that, then you can see just what a brilliant job account management has become."
MALCOLM GREEN - executive creative director, Delaney Lund Knox Warren & Partners
- Act like you're running a business. Look at creative briefs as if they're business problems, with goals and targets.
- Don't act when the client calls. Act before they do.
- Think like a planner, dream like a creative. You're no longer a salesman or a "suit" or a bag carrier. You have to have a real and genuine role.
- Speak your mind. The age of silent obedience from account people is gone. You have (or should have) a view. Express it. If you're expressing the client's view, that's OK. Somebody's got to do it. But be objective.
- Get a taste for creative and commercial success. Revel in the news that talks about how your ad has shifted the client's share price as well as his product.
- Stop fretting over fonts and animated slides in presentations. Start thinking about ideas and concepts. Talk from your heart, not your laptop.
- Be brave. It's more necessary than ever with many creatives feeling the industry isn't as supportive of the creative industry as it once was. We need your confidence and leadership like never before.
- Love the public. Not just intellectually, but emotionally. Immerse yourself to the point where (if relevant) you care who wins Strictly Come Dancing.
TREVOR BEATTIE - creative director, Beattie McGuinness Bungay
- Be enthusiastic and honest. Don't just think about the brief. Look for the insight that will lead to great advertising.
- Don't hide behind e-mails that tend to be poorly written. They often read as terse and can come across badly. Give feedback by speaking directly to people.
- If a project has been cracked, the creative team should take the account team to lunch.
- Talk to the creative team the minute the client meeting has finished. Give instant feedback. Don't let the weekend go by.
- If the creatives ask a question and you don't know the answer, be honest and find it for them as quickly as possible. Don't pretend you know and make it up.
- Good teams (account manager, creative and planner) become "mini agencies" on their own piece of business.
- ANDY LOCKLEY - senior creative, Fallon
- Good account people must understand they aren't there just to "sell" the creative work. Their job is to broker the relationship between clients, creatives and any other stakeholders in the business. And that can be anybody.
- They should be advertising experts with a huge knowledge of great creative work over past years.
- Creatives look to account people to provide the organisational skills. But they should also be able to inspire fantastic creative work.
- A good account person will ensure my idea is interpreted properly by everybody who comes into contact with it.
- So many things can go wrong between the time creatives are let loose on an idea and the conclusion of a project. We rely on account people to corral everything into place.
- Creatives will always bow to a good account person with a dispassionate perspective.
- I want account people to play it straight down the line with me and to understand where I'm coming from.
- MARC GIUSTI - creative director, Good Technology
- Good account people shouldn't see themselves just as "piggy-in-the-middle" between creatives and client. They are more like the "mini managing directors" of their accounts.
- Creatives want to deal with account people who are clearly talented and have the ability to bind everything together.
- I want to work with account people who are as good at leading teams as they are at coming up with a great strategy.
- The best account people are also creative people.
- We don't expect account people to be "flogging" ads. But we expect them to be able to talk knowledgably about what's being produced.
- Creatives won't respect account people who act like bag carriers ... but we do respect a great suit.
BEN PRIEST - founder, Adam & Eve
- Good account people are those that can rise to a challenge, who don't get fazed, and will make things happen.
- They must care passionately about what they do, because they're the people who have to follow a project from beginning to end.
- They are the ones who must build the best possible account team. There's much more to the job than getting a TV script off to the BACC.
- Good account people keep everybody's spirits up in times of trouble, keep everybody motivated and clients constantly updated about what the agency team is doing.
- They will always want to be involved. If they "sell" an idea to creatives, they should always want to know what's happening to it.