Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Adventures In Advertising: Why Creative People Don't Trust Account People

Historically, in advertising there has always been a conflict between account managers and their creative counterparts.  Creative people accuse weak account people of caving in to their clients and account people accuse their creative teams of not executing agreed upon strategies and excluding them from the creative process.

A creative director recently told me this stunning story; it completely explains why creative people often don't trust their account people.

Two agencies merged, the bigger taking control; the bigger agency had a creative reputation while the smaller agency, while worldwide, was primarily known as account dominated.  The EVP creative director of the dominant agency supervised a new campaign which was to be presented to the smaller agency's biggest client.  It was a  major brand name, world wide account.  The account person had worked with this client for a number of years before the merger and had a good relationship with the client. When the creative director showed the work to the account person, it was accepted enthusiastically.  The account person called the client to set up a presentation.

The creative director presented the work and the meeting went well.  In fact, the client was effusive in their praise of the work. Everyone went back to the agency happy and excited, as happens after a great meeting.

The next day the account person came into the creative director’s office.  At first she hemmed and hawed.  Finally, she told the EVP that the client actually hated the work.  She also admitted that she knew that would happen, but never said anything because she did not want to offend the creative director on their first assignment together..  The creative director was furious. It seems that the weak account person, after accepting the work, had actually called the client and torpedoed the campaign prior to its presentation.  She told the client that the new creative director and her people were sensitive and that, in order to keep the creative group enthusiastic, the client should feign enthusiasm.

The creative director was furious.  She explained to the account person that she had intentionally ruined any relationship she might establish with the client in order to protect her own relationship with the client.  But then the CD did something completely unexpected.  With the account person sitting in her office, the EVP Creative Director called the client on the speaker phone.  She took matters in her own hands by explaining that it was her job to sell the client’s product and that she didn’t get to be the creative director without having a lot of work approved – and a lot rejected. She said that she was a big girl and could take rejection and criticism.  She explained that if the client had an issue, they could speak up and their problems would be immediately addressed. She told the client that they were partners and asked the client what the issues were.  The client explained their issues and it turned out that the desired changes actually were minor and could easily be accommodated.  

At most agencies, the account person would have been fired, but in this case she was kept on the account with a stern warning. 

Within a short time the creative person established a great relationship with the client.  The account person became minimized.

This is a perfect story about why and how account people can sell out the creatives.  When I heard this story, it confirmed something that I think happens frequently because many account people are weak and don't know or understand their own jobs. 


  1. Wow, that is astonishingly bad account management. It's also totally believable and credible - it has the ring of truth. And, I want to hire that creative director. Wonderful, strong relationship management on the part of the CD. I'm astonished that the agency didn't fire the account person. I would have had to do so, not for poor management but for being an untrusting and untrustworthy colleague. What is more dangerous to an agency than a team member who is unworthy of trust?

    1. You are totally right. I would have fired her on the spot. Unfortunately, as we all know. There are a lot of account people who don't know their jobs. But I also think that agencies don't train account people or manage their expectations for a count people.

  2. Good Grief and I guess I'm glad that I am sitting in Macao, 10,000 miles and 10,000 years removed from most of this.
    I get this is one story but generalities are often misleading or worse.
    Not sure how many "great or strong account people" stories you might get and I don't think I am being defensive as a former account person. my mission was always very clear to me, my goal was to advance both the client's and the agencies business and that the creative product was sacred (yeah coming from a Ted Bates graduate)and that has stayed with me for the 18 years as a client. I take some solace in the fact that a Hall of Fame copy writer with his name on the door once told me that "I might not have been the brightest bulb in the pack, but when I spoke to him, he saw advertising in his head."

    The worst thing of your story is the behind the back and manipulations...hard to impossible to ever feel that colleague would have my back, the client's back or the agency's back going forward--that a truism not a generality.

    1. Good comment, Scott … With both of us having cut our advertising teeth together at Bates, we know that weak account people never made it there. That’s why Jacoby called it “Account Management”, while other noteworthy agencies like DDB called it “Account Service” or “Client Service”. The former being a “line-management” role with direct accountability for EVERYTHING; the latter being a “staff” nomenclature with weaker and more subordinate implications. As for the EVP Account Manager who lied to her EVP Creative Director by ostensibly supporting their creative work in-house while surreptitiously torpedoing it with the client beforehand … Totally outrageous! At the same time I must say, there are plenty of Creatives out there who have no RESPECT for their agency Account “partners”, no matter how good, helpful, supportive, or trustworthy they are. Like some kind of privileged “superiority complex” that I’ve never understood – as if they were more intelligent and talented simply by dint of their job function. Meanwhile, “trust” and “respect” are EARNED; not bestowed … no matter what you do.

    2. Scott, I Heard this story and went nuts. I know it happened because someone I know well told me the story. Personally, I always got along well with my creative groups and when we disagreed we argued and discussed until we were all on the same page; then we all fought like hell for the work. But I believe that stories like this happen all the time - just no one talks about it.

  3. Hey Paul ... Just wondering why my comments now appear in BLACK instead of the BLUE for everyone else. Does that mean anything? Bill

    1. Bill, Blogger is doing lots of strange things which I can't figure out. For some reason I have to manually open my blog page several times a day to see if there are any comments. Up until a week ago, I received comments in my in box. I have no idea why you are getting black while everyone else is getting blue. On my end, everyone is written in black.

  4. WOW! As someone who spent the 80's and 90's as an account person at big NYC shops it would never have occured to me to pull this stunt! We were taught our job was to represent the agency with the client, and make sure the client's needs were met. That included advocating for the creative so long as it was on brand and on strategy.

    The best work comes from an account/creative team that is aligned, that are two parts of the process of getting to great advertising that works. If either part disrespects the other, ultimately the work suffers.

    And yes, I had some rude, dismissive Creatives, including one CD who told our group of trainees that account people were little more than bag carriers, and aother who told me to hold out my hands, and "there, that's what you're here for. You're the sh*t catcher." But overall I worked with some amazing, talented, smart, inspiring writers and art directors over the years. And (for the most part) I'm proud of the work our team created!

    1. Helen, it is unacceptable for the creative people to belittle account management. The irony is that, no matter how those people feel or talk to account people, if they started their own business, the first person they would hire is an account person.


  5. Paul,

    Thank you for sharing! Your posts for me are like watching Mad Men - timeless and 100% true.

    The story you shared here happens everyday in agencies and the corporate world.

    If there was a way to eliminate politics and blind self interest, productivity would quadruple and we could all work 2 days a week.

    1. Rodney, I think that the thing that would eliminate this situation is proper training.

  6. When times are good, relationships are good. When times are bad, like during a merger, relationships can quickly sour. Uncertainty breeds mistrust.

    We’ve all worked with colleagues, or for agencies, we could trust, and with those we could not, some of whom were pathologically distrustful.

    My favorite was during my short time at a smaller division of a major agency in 2004. The place was in freefall following the tech bubble and 9/11 advertising recession: empty offices; employees cowering behind closed doors; pay cut to three days a week, even though people were expected to show for five; and a financial scandal in print production resulting in an FBI raid.

    I was hired to run a small domestic b-to-b account and told to increase revenue 25% or be fired. I took the challenge because I felt I could do it. I also needed a job; never a good place from which to interview.

    On my first morning I read the contract and learned agency revenue was capped at the current number regardless of the scope of work. In other words, more work did not translate into more pay. (Though less, meant less.) So I walked into the president’s office, the guy who hired me, and said, “What’s up? How am I supposed to increase revenue when it says there can never be an increase in revenue?’ He said, “Figure it out,” and went on his way. Blinded by my past successes, newness to the agency, and need for work, I figured, I could figure it out. Classic hubris. Or delusion.

    A few weeks later, I bump into the creative director leaving the client’s office. I had no idea he was meeting the client. Nor did he explain why when I asked. Upon returning to the agency I asked the president what was up. He wouldn’t answer.

    I learned the two had worked a side deal with the client to increase revenue. The deal had the creative director working freelance for the client, in additional to his staff job, and then kicking-back a portion of his freelance fees to the agency. The kick-back increased account revenue by 25%.

    Eventually the freelancer meetings morphed into general meetings and I, as account director, was cut out.

    Still believing I could increase revenue, I began developing relationships with managers in European divisions of the company – they had different advertising budgets – and with managers in the domestic sales department. They too had their own budget. This could be new money outside the contract.

    The client learned what I was doing and had me fired. The agency president told me I was fired for “going behind the client’s back.” I’ll admit to the crime. But you can’t beat the irony or cruel joke.

    The agency and these colleagues disappeared some time ago. Greed, selfishness and fear never truly benefit the workplace. If the workplace is what matters.


I would welcome your comments, suggestions or anything you would like to share with me or my readers.

Creative Commons License