This creative reckons account management is the most important department
A view from Paul Burke

This creative reckons account management is the most important department

Account handlers are smart, well-informed sounding boards for any creative idea, Paul Burke argues.

Who’d be an account handler?

The answer used to be very simple. Some of the brightest young minds in the country. Attracted by an interesting, exciting career that hovered on the fringes of big business and showbusiness, of politics and sport, a slew of smart, charismatic graduates would be queuing up to get in. So, despite spending most of my working life in creative departments, I’ve always considered account management to be the most important department of all.

Really? 

Yes, really. If you think of an agency as a shoe factory, then “creatives” are the shoemakers. We’ll make you a lovely pair of brogues, but without account handlers to facilitate the creation and sale of those brogues, we’d be nothing.  

Where would A have been without M and V? Or H without those vital two Bs? Account handlers have always run the show. The best ones are shrewd business operators and excellent judges of human nature and good creative work. They combine the interests of agency and client, simultaneously boosting the business of both.  

So what’s happened?

According to a recent report, entitled The Future of Account Management, its very existence is under threat. Nefarious forces have been eroding its authority, so urgent action is required to restore it. This will mean overcoming a few problems which, as far as I can see, are as follows:

The quality of the work

Returning to the shoemaker analogy, the quality of the shoes has declined. Instead of handling those bespoke, hand-welted brogues, account management is now expected to enthuse over a cheap pair of trainers made in a sweatshop. It must be particularly galling for those with English degrees to be given ads by “writers” with only the feeblest grasp of spelling, grammar or narrative. So is it any wonder that the smartest young people are now taking their degrees into the more appreciative worlds of tech, start-ups and management consultancy? If you’re a “creative” you can do a lot to bring them back. Just be a bit…what’s the word I’m looking for... better.

The bean counters

Advertising has always been a business. And a very successful one.  It's ironic, then, that the more that agencies’ finance people have obsessed about the bottom line, the less successful they’ve become. This could be down to the neutering of account directors’ entrepreneurial spirit. They were always afforded a little latitude with a client’s budget, which encouraged them to make more interesting use of it. Not any more. Layers of approval (now there’s a misnomer) would be required from anonymous people in distant holding companies. Their focus is on saving money, rather than making it. But if they trusted creative account handling over creative accountancy, they may actually end up with a lot more beans to count.

“360 creative producers”

I think that’s what they’re calling themselves now but they’re more commonly known as project managers, and their creeping encroachment into one traditional role of account management is a problem. So much so that The Future of Account Management report suggests that some clients have trouble differentiating the roles of the two departments.

So let me spell it out for you. Account handlers are smart, well-informed sounding boards for any creative idea. When they drop in to check a creative team’s progress on a brief, they bring a thorough knowledge of the client, the market, the brief and the air date.

The project manager brings none of these things. There are notable exceptions – seasoned pros, who make things happen and get things done – but unfortunately, they’re the minority. Too many have little interest beyond a rigidly enforced “timeline”. The worst ones try to prevent account handlers liaising with creatives and break that vital link that so often produces good work. Officious project managers contribute practically nothing to the creative process and, in another life, would be issuing parking tickets for Lewisham Council.

I’ll name names

John McKnight, an eccentric account director at BMP (now Adam & Eve/DDB), was an inveterate dropper-inner. He also had a habit of using words that hadn’t been in common parlance since 1959. One day he came by to see how I was getting on with a brief for John Smith’s Bitter. He described the gadget inside the can as a “widget” Bingo. This led to Jack Dee becoming a household name. Philippa Roberts, another inspirational account director, dropped in to see how the British Gas TV campaign was coming along and suggested Caroline Aherne as the face of the brand. This led to two BBC sitcoms: Mrs Merton and Malcolm and The Royle Family. So is there a creative person anywhere who doesn’t owe the goal of a great campaign to the assist of a great account handler?

I won’t name names

There are, of course, some hopeless account handlers whose ineptitude has damaged many a creative career. But don’t you see? That’s exactly why they’re so important. If account management didn’t matter, the very mention of the names of the bad ones wouldn’t still send steam through every creative’s ears.

A change of phrase

A small shift in emphasis has proved to be a huge catastrophe. calamitous. Instead of “selling” work to the client, account handlers now “share” work with the client. This changed everything, downgrading the sales skills necessary to get a client to buy a bold new campaign.

“Sharing” is so weak and lazy. Likened by one client to a “limp handshake”, it betrays a lack of conviction to which clients have responded with a lack of respect. It’s turned agencies from valued consultants into supine suppliers.

However, I think we’re finally waking up to the consequences of this disastrous downgrade. In a recent piece in The Spectator, Rory Sutherland pointed out that the work of our greatest inventors might never have seen the light of day without their own equivalent of account handlers. “We always accord high status to the inventor,” he opined, “and low status to the showman.”

So now more than ever, we need strong account management to make sure the show goes on.

Paul Burke is a freelance copywriter and novelist