Is this a legitimate issue, or simply an excuse manufactured by hapless account people? I asked around, and to my surprise, many good AEs actually view outside consultants and new agency disciplines like account planning as having reduced their role to little more than "project administrators." If this is truly the case, then I think that we've let it happen to ourselves.
The plight of the AE seems to be the result of several factors, starting with years of allowing account service departments to operate, unchecked, in pursuit of objectives that have little to do with the core competency, or product, of an ad agency-great ads. Those misguided objectives yield equally bad definitions of what makes a good account executive. Which has led to hiring scores of unqualified account people-who are provided with pathetic training-and are judged daily on process-oriented criteria that have nothing to do the fundamental mission of an agency.
To better understand what I mean by the difference between a product and a process orientation, take a look at this quote from Malcolm MacDougall of Hill Holliday on the true definition of account service. "I don't even know what client service is, if it doesn't serve the goal of providing the client with great advertising. That is the only way we can truly serve our clients, therefore it is the only way we can be dispensable or indispensable."
Why have we defined advertising, or allowed it to be defined, as simply a service business, when in fact we are in a business that has a lot more in common with manufacturing? Think about it. We work on an assembly line of sorts-different people with different skill sets making contributions to the work. And at the end of the day, we all have a tangible product to show for our efforts: great ads. It's when agencies, and account people, lose sight of this simple truth about our business that we invariably fail our clients, consumers and ourselves.
The Great Motivator of any good AE, the thing that should make each and every one of us want to get out of bed in the morning, should always be creating brilliant ads. But for so many of us, our guiding focus is not that product but rather the process of getting there. Account people will thrive only when their singular focus becomes the very tangible product that every agency should provide its clients-great advertising. And a new product-focused model of account service is the only way to repair the damage done to our discipline, and to restore the confidence of clients and co-workers in their AEs. Starting today, AEs need to construct that model with the input of creatives, media, planners, clients and others.
What follows is by no means a complete listing of what needs to be done; but it's a start:
1) Stop feeling sorry for yourself.
If we feel that the AE's role has been limited, it is up to AEs to redefine it and reclaim our rightful and necessary place in the creative process. If we're losing the respect of our clients and co-workers, we need to spend less time looking for scapegoats and start taking the responsibility necessary to earn it back. And if we feel trapped by agency processes, it is up to us to refocus our efforts on our product, and on how we can add value to the best service any ad agency can provide to its clients.
2) Lose the "shirts and skins" mentality.
We need to start looking at the addition of outside consultants, account planning or other agency disciplines as opportunities, not threats. Take account planning as an example. If you view planning as a threat, you're probably placing too much emphasis on process-related criteria throughout your work. If the creative is your constant personal benchmark, you'll see the planners as the invaluable resources they are. The planner is another weapon in your arsenal in the war against bad advertising. Place your ultimate faith in your product and you have nothing to fear.
3) Take ownership of the creative product. If you feel like your accounts are getting away from you, then take them back. Start taking ownership of your business and, specifically, the creative. Become a student of advertising. Take time out as often as you can to read the creative-focused trade magazines and study any good advertising you can get your hands on. Know who's doing the best work in the country, and who deserves to lose an account or two. And if you don't carry a portfolio like any writer or art director you work with, ask yourself, why not? If you're truly taking ownership in the creative, you should keep a book for the sheer pride in knowing you had a hand in producing it.
4) Take some responsibility. How can AEs expect to be invited to share in the victory of producing great work unless they're also willing to shoulder the responsibility when things go wrong? Take risks, and challenge your clients and co-workers to transform good ideas into reality. But if a single piece of substandard creative ever goes out the door on your watch, you have no one to blame but yourself. The buck stops with you.
5) Lead, don't manage. So many people view leading and managing as interchangeable, when in fact they couldn't be more disparate. Managers are focused on the micro, the process. They spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about minutiae, accomplishing tasks based on some rigidly defined role or formula. They lack the vision necessary to guide clients and co-workers to do better work. Leadership is completely different. Although leaders have the ability to manage, they can go much further because they focus their energies on the macro, the broader goal of great work. They have perspective, knowledge and vision that brings out the very best in clients and co-workers. That, in turn, guides them to do things they wouldn't or couldn't have done without you. Without question, leadership is the most powerful contribution an AE can bring to a piece of business.
Above all, we need to transform ourselves from account people into advertising people. Why do we spend so much time defining account service, creative, and account planning as separate functions within the agency-and not nearly enough time on building our knowledge base in ways that blur the lines between those roles? We should strive to be advertising people who are willing to step out of our defined roles at any time, and do whatever it takes to contribute to the cause of creating brilliant work. Better yet, define your own role. It doesn't require any remarkable ability or God-given talent to be a good advertising person. They're made, not born. What it takes is passion. And lots of it. If your passion for great advertising is your one true motivator, you can start transcending departments, layers and titles to become the advertising person you were meant to be.
So let's stop whining, roll up our sleeves and go do the work that needs to be done. Your goal every day should be to do whatever it takes to ensure that whatever goes out the door of your shop is in the small percentage of advertising that is truly awe-inspiring. Maybe someday the majority of advertising won't be completely ignored by consumers. But until that day, there's plenty to be done, and plenty of opportunities for every account person to play a more critical role in producing great advertising.