CREATIVE SUITS: WHO KNEW? "SUITS" CAN BE CREATIVES IN WOLVES' CLOTHING. OR AT LEAST A CREATIVE'S BEST FRIEND.

By Published on .

They may not be able to write or art direct worth a damn, but they have an unerring eye for talent and great ideas -- and they champion both. They're easy to spot at a client presentation: They're the ones who are passionate about the work, yet cool and persuasive, addressing both esthetic and bottom-line concerns. They're also the ones in the well-cut jacket and silk tie. They are, to use an old derogatory term probably coined by some rumpled and disgruntled copywriter, "the suits."

But the term doesn't seem appropriate for the most creative business-side agency executives. More and more these days, creatives at agencies acknowledge the critical role played by certain creative-minded business-siders in helping to foster strong advertising. Pat Fallon of Fallon McElligott, Jonathan Bond of Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners, Patrick Hunt of Hunt Adkins, Bob Jeffrey of J.Walter Thompson, Roy Spence of GSD&M, Jack Connors of Hill Holliday, Tom Carroll of TBWA/Chiat/Day, and other "enablers" are often key players in encouraging, nurturing, and selling good work.

MORE VARIED BACKGROUNDS

The phenomenon of the "creative suit" is not new; consider that Carl Ally, who helped ignite the creative revolution of the 1960s, came up through the ranks as an account-sider. But it's probably true that there are more creative-driven executives out there today than in years past. The creative suits "bridge the gap between account services and creative," says Tom Carroll of TBWA/Chiat/Day, and they are recasting the old image of the account guy as a bag-carrier or golf partner. They're also coming from various disciplines within the agency: Many, like Bond, Carroll and Jeffrey, have been trained in account services; others are former hands-on creatives who've shifted toward the business side, like Jim Mullen of Mullen and Donny Deutsch of Deutsch Inc.; still others, like Jon Steele of Goodby Silverstein & Partners, have emerged from the account planning department.

According to Bond, "It almost doesn't matter what discipline these people came from;" what matters, he says, is their ability to cross turf lines. "In effect, we are translators," Bond believes. "To do this well, you have to understand creative ideas and concepts as well as any creative person, but you also must know how to explain to the client how all of this will translate into making money. You have to be able to think from both sides of the brain."

Pat Fallon, the co-founder of Fallon McElligott, may well be the creative Ur-suit. As talented creative directors like Tom McElligott, Pat Burnham and Bill Westbrook have come and gone, there's been one constant at FM: Fallon himself. What separates Fallon and other creative suits from the run-of-the-mill business-sider? Patrick Hunt, who once worked under Fallon at FM, says that his former boss (who chose not to be interviewed for this story) possesses three qualities that are critical in any creative suit: The ability to recognize good creative work; a passion for selling it; and a rock-solid belief in its effectiveness. "A lot of good account guys have some of those qualities, but Pat has all of them," says Hunt. But when asked to single out one of these qualities, Hunt picks the first: "I think I was most impressed by the way Fallon could always recognize a good ad immediately," he says.

AN ELEMENT OF ENVY

"A truly great account person needs to be able to see the bones," says Greg DiNoto, partner and creative director at New York's DiNoto Lee. "They should be able to understand and articulate the mechanics of an idea. You can't nurture -- and you can't sell -- what you can't understand." But beyond just recognizing good work, creative suits tend to have an obsession with it. "A guy like Roy Spence is wildly passionate about the work, almost in an evangelical sense," says veteran copywriter Ernie Schenck, who freelances extensively for Spence's agency, GSD&M. Schenck says that clients tend to expect that enthusiasm for the work from creatives, but when it emanates from account-siders, he says, "it's infectious and extremely powerful."

Why are some executives so passionate about creative work? A cynic might suggest they support and champion good creative for the same reason that a sports agent wants to rep Michael Jordan -- because it pays to back talent. But in reality, it can be harder and sometimes less lucrative for an account person to throw his persuasive skills behind quality creative, some say. "It's actually easier to sell bad work, because it's linear," says Jonathan Bond. "You can say to a client, there's the strategy and here's the ad to match it. It's much harder to sell something unexpected."

Pagano Schenck & Kay's co-founder and creative director Woody Kay believes that the best suits have "an unshakable belief that great creative sells products and brands better." Amster Yard creative director Jeff Weiss, on the other hand, observes that they tend to be "people who want to be around creativity, but don't happen to be able to write or draw. They find that the way they can be creative is to empower creative people." Marty Cooke, creative director at M&C Saatchi, even believes there may be "a tiny element of envy" within creative suits, who, on some level, would probably like to be creating work themselves. But the good ones, Cooke adds, have the intelligence to recognize that their talents lie elsewhere, plus "they have the selflessness required to be an impresario, to be a champion of good work."

Bob Jeffrey, who championed great work at Goldsmith/Jeffrey and Lowe & Partners/SMS before becoming president at JWT in New York, may be typical of the mindset of the creative suit: Starting out on the account side, Jeffrey immediately sought out Doyle Dane Bernbach, "because I wanted to work in a creative environment," he says. "I came from a liberal arts background, and I've always had the belief that advertising can be a form of art." Jeffrey adds that suits with respect for advertising's artful side tended to be more successful among DDB's account managers. "The agency would hire both BA's and MBA's as account people -- and the BA's were usually the ones who survived," he says.

BRINGING DOWN THE WALLS

But even at creative agencies like DDB, there used to be a tendency to wall off account people and keep them away from the creative work. No longer. Those divisions started to vanish, Weiss says, after contemporary creative agencies like Fallon McElligott and Goodby Silverstein began to create a more unified environment. Plenty of traditional agencies kept their departmental barriers in place, but "what you found at an agency like Goodby was that it was all fluent between creatives and planners and account people, and there were no walls," explains Weiss. As Bond notes, these agencies have tended to take more of a team approach in developing and presenting work: "Advertising now is a team sport," says Bond. "It is not the creative superstar coming in to wow you. In a Fallon McElligott presentation, it's all about how Pat plays off Westbrook and [planner] Rob White and [designer] Joe Duffy -- the client feels they're getting it from every angle." Bond says that through this team approach, FM gets the client to believe in the agency's creative process. "What Pat is brilliant at is getting the client's trust, not in himself, but in the agency. And then they'll believe in the work; otherwise, they might say, 'I like Pat Fallon, but I don't trust those creative guys.' "

Risks lurk further down the road, too. "You can go into a client and have great meetings, and you assume everything is all right," says Jeffrey. "Then they go into their own meetings later on, and there is suddenly all this doubt that springs up. At that point, everything you're working on can unravel if you don't have a good account person, making the follow-up calls, reassuring the client to stay with this idea. It's not the presentation that's important -- it's the follow-up."

Building rapport with clients is critical, but what really sets creative suits apart is the relationship they foster with agency creatives. One of the most important achievements of Mullen, Fallon, and other business-siders who run creative shops is the culture they've created. "Great work is the product of a great culture and an environment," Mullen believes. "So creating and maintaining that environment is the single most important thing I can do." The same is true at Fallon, where veteran CD Bob Barrie credits Pat Fallon with "being very selective in the types of clients the agency pursues, pitches and retains. Pat has said 'no' to the opportunity to pitch lots of sizable new business simply because he didn't feel it would be a good fit for our agency." Mullen says that, in the end, a good business-sider can influence about 80 percent of great advertising -- creating the environment, aligning creatives and client on strategy, making sure communication doesn't break down along the way, presenting the finished creative product in the best way possible. "The thing we don't do," Mullen says, "is come up with the unexpected, the big idea. That, we leave to

In this article:
Most Popular