The Bad Account Director’s Toolkit

I’ve collaborated with at least two dozen Account Directors in my career and only three of them stood out as exceptional. The rest of them seemed more like in-house clients.

In advertising, nothing matters more than the work. It must be strategically sound and emotionally compelling. It must get noticed, change perceptions and change behavior. The best account directors join forces with the lead creatives to push the best ideas forward.

It’s difficult to blame any one person for an agency’s failure to create compelling work. Ultimately, agency chiefs must accept fault. But among all the people in an agency, the Account Director can be one of the biggest influencers of the work. Good or bad.

If you want to be a bad Account Director, just follow these eleven rules.

1. Put client service before anything else.

If your client is happy, then you’re happy. So try to figure out what will make them happy and focus on that. Is it more focus group testing? Go for it. Is it advertising that carries more USP’s? Demand that. The better you can communicate your client’s desires to your entire team, and strive to make them a reality, the easier and better your life will be.

Comment: Building a brand takes tenacity not complicity. Human nature resists change. It fears risk. Most clients—although well intentioned—will not step out of their comfort zone. So “client service” generally means making the client feel comfortable with safe and familiar advertising, which might maintain the status quo, but it won’t move the needle. Real client service means doing the difficult work of building trust and instilling the courage to take risks.

2. Always ask for a “sellable” option from creatives.

The client has deadlines. They have quarterly budgets. Time is of the essence. To go into a presentation with only hard-to-sell work will agitate them and cause unnecessary stress and anxiety. Without a safety net, you might fall to your death. No ad campaign is worth that. Better to have a sellable option in your back pocket.

Comment: The sellable option is almost always the one the client chooses. “Sellable” means familiar, comfortable, rational, easy to buy. Sellable doesn’t rock the boat. But neither does it fill the sails. If you give a damn about the work, then only bring work you love and would be proud to produce. Everything else is just selling out.

3. Insist that the presentation cannot be pushed back.

There are a million reasons why this meeting has to happen by Friday. It’s been scheduled for weeks. The client is expecting to see something. Delaying it only reduces production time and creates problems. It makes everyone nervous and anxious. Plus, the client is on vacation starting Monday. We’ll miss our window. Let’s have the meeting anyway. We’ll keep it rough and call it a “tissue session.” 

Comment: An old saying goes, “Good things come to those who wait.” In fact, I think Guinness uses that for their tagline. What it means is, nothing of real quality is made quickly. It’s practically a law of the universe. What could be more important than a powerful creative idea that is thoughtfully and carefully crafted? If time is a problem, perhaps you should insist that the client brief you earlier. Or insist that you eliminate needless focus group testing. Or insist that the planners not use up so much time writing the brief. The creative ideas are the absolute most important part of the equation and therefore should be allotted most of the time.

4. Play the “devil’s advocate.”

To every argument, there is a counter-argument. And your job is to make it. You must be the voice of reason and rationality. You must be the pillar of pragmatism and prudence. There’s a “danger” alarm and you’re not afraid to pull it. A heavy dose of caution is just what this project needs to stop it from spiraling out of control.

Comment: Another term for “devil’s advocate” is “the client cap.” Either way, it’s basically an attempt to hedge bets and avoid risk. The truth is, as Seth Godin puts it, “The devil doesn’t need any help. He’s doing just fine.” Rather than advocate for the safe route, advocate for the best route. Instead of fixating on the worst possible outcome, focus on the greatest possible outcome.

5. Bypass the Creative Director and speak directly to the creative team.

The CD is a little hard to deal with. So save yourself the head-butts and simply have a quiet, casual chat with the creative team assigned to the project. Let them know how important this project is to the client. And exactly what the client is looking for. Tell them, “we need to pick our battles” and “let’s make this one a quick slam dunk.” After all, nobody likes to work late or start over, so let’s make it easier on ourselves and sell something in the first presentation.

Comment: This is a dirty, backdoor tactic. Senior creatives rarely fall for it, but less senior ones are more easily intimidated and coerced. We must accept that great work isn’t easy. It’s always an uphill battle. Lobbying the creatives to create easier-to-sell ads might ensure that everyone goes home at 5:00PM and ensures that the client remains in their comfort zone, but it will most definitely compromise the work. Not to mention, undermining the CD’s instruction and authority erodes trust and respect.

6. Manage your team via email.

Between frequent travel and meetings, you’re rarely in your office. Thankfully, you’ve got your iPhone. You can manage your teams from anywhere via email. It’s easy and creates a nice record of conversations. And, hopefully, your team will take some initiative in your absence by making some decisions without you. 

Comment: Managing via email seems like a necessary evil, but it’s not. Face-to-face conversations actually take less time and eliminate misunderstandings that occur with vague, shorthand emails. Actually leading your team in person is so much more effective. Some Account Directors schedule regular status meetings—sometimes daily—to enable better communication, discussion and problem solving. Then they attend as few meetings as possible to allow more time to be physically available, so they can lead.

7. Be difficult to reach and delay your response.

When you’re important, your time is at a premium. If you’re hard to reach by phone or email, it’s just a fact of life. And if your replies aren’t as timely as people would like, then it’s their problem. Let them deal with it. Perhaps it will teach them patience and resilience. 

Comment: Nothing is more frustrating than waiting all day long for feedback from your boss and when you finally get it, it’s riddled with criticisms and/or changes. At that point, you feel like you’ve wasted a day waiting. Now you’ll have to work late, perhaps all night, just to make your deadline. This is when an unavailable boss, who takes forever to respond, hinders your job. This wouldn’t be such a bad thing if you were empowered with autonomy to make executive decisions. But you’re not. Your boss is an authoritarian. Account Directors who strive to be fast responders keep things moving forward. The others—who are too important to be bothered—slow everything down and create resentment in their team.

8. Treat account executives as executive assistants.

Everyone has to pay their dues. You did and so must they. If your team really wants to learn client service, they should practice serving you. Getting you coffee, making you photocopies, organizing your piles of paper, keeping track of your schedule, picking up your dry cleaning, whatever. Hey, it’s not hazing if it doesn’t leave an abrasion. Right?

Comment: Many AE’s aren’t really AE’s at all. They’re glorified executive assistants. And the more eager they are, the more they get stuck doing that job. It really just comes down to an abuse of power. Account Directors should be gracious, appreciative and good mentors. Not lords. All it does is teach AE’s bad habits they’ll pass on to others. The world would be a kinder, more respectful place if Account Directors only required AE’s to do the work of an AE.

9. Talk to the client as little as possible.

Your client is busy and needs his space. Incessant phone calls and emails will only agitate him. So minimize contact. Your sparse and carefully timed interactions will send a message that you’ve got everything under control and he needn’t worry about a thing. 

Comment: It could be said that the greatest factor in doing great work is building client trust. This requires a lot of communication to get to really know the client. Also on the part of the Creative Director. Phone calls, dinners, beers after work, whatever will build a strong relationship and therefore trust. 

10. Take the path of least resistance.

The last thing you want to do is enter the boxing ring with the client. It’s better to be liked. So be agreeable and compliant as much as possible. After all, the client pays the bills. And who knows? If you play your cards right, perhaps you’ll get an offer to go client-side.

Comment: Nobody would advocate being combative and tough when it’s unnecessary. But sometimes it’s necessary. Actually, most of the time. Because, if you’re creating really breakthrough ideas, they will be more difficult for your client to approve. But in the end, it’ll be worth it. The rewards are far greater.

11. Consider yourself an honorary Creative Director.

You didn’t bust your butt to get to where you are, just to play second fiddle to the Creative Director. After all, you have the client’s ear. Therefore you are the gatekeeper. If there’s one person that’s most important to this account, it’s you. Which means no creative ideas should get approved by the Creative Directors unless it has your stamp of approval on it as well. 

Comment: It’s not unheard of that Creative Directors get excited about an idea that you know is not going to fly. But that’s no reason to try and kill it. Sometimes a creative idea can serve to challenge a client to think differently, even if he ends up rejecting it. And it can make it easier the next time, when you come back with something equally challenging. So it’s never a waste of time. It’s like trying to drive a screw into cement. It works better if you drill a pilot hole first. So let the Creative Directors do their job. It’s not a negative reflection on you if the client dislikes an idea. 

In conclusion...

Being an Account Director (or Managing Director) is one of the hardest jobs in advertising. Sometimes you’re squeezed between a hard-nosed client and a stubborn Creative Director. But, the fact is, the best agencies on the planet are creatively driven, not account driven. Be a champion of great work. And know which side you’re on. If you find yourself always at odds with creative leadership, then you’re in the wrong place.


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