Wanted: Account executives who know how to foster great creative

A crucial part of the manager's role has gotten lost in the rise of the holding-company model

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It is interesting to note that one of the most memorable commercials of the current season is the GlaxoSmithKline Jerome Bettis execution, a take-off of the "Mean Joe Greene" Coke spot from two decades ago.

To paraphrase Bob Dylan, where have all the great ideas gone? Surely, great creative is not the result of the rise of the account-planning function, which places primary emphasis on market research. To many, it has simply reduced the account executive to no more than a glorified traffic person with the resulting conflict between these two overlapping functions-account planning and account management-causing one to wonder whether the agency-holding-company model is truly conducive to developing a strong creative product.

One could argue that the holding-company model the agency business has adopted is necessary in order to make clients feel comfortable about the services they are contracting. Apparently size is important even in advertising, where often the development of a creative product is not necessarily viewed as the service that is being provided. Irrespective of the expansion of media alternatives, the segmenting of audiences and the need to be regional in a global society, the fact of the matter is that the end result clients require is unique creative. Is that not the primary reason they hire agencies?

You would think so. Yet in this global community, we seem to have become confused. We're so busy anticipating what we believe a client wants that we're losing sight of what it is we should be providing. Account planning sounds right because, God only knows, we do need to understand what the consumer is thinking in order to develop an effective strategy. But what about the rest of the process-the role the manager should play in the development of the creative?

We have walked away from developing, for lack of a better classification, the "creative executive." We must get back to a better understanding of what traits the account person or planner must have so that a superior creative product can be developed.

Required Skills

The first and foremost requirement is creative instinct. The account person doesn't have to know how to draw the picture or write the copy. But he or she does need to have a feeling about what is developed, not just if it is on strategy, but if there is something about it that is "appealing," "different" or, in its own crazy way, "creative." The great creative ideas often are not definable. Often, to the noncreative executive, it won't make sense. To the creative ones, it will, and it will make them rise to the challenge and sell it.

I once bumped into a headhunter on 57th Street in Manhattan. When I inquired about coming in to talk with him, he asked if I had an M.B.A. While I did, I asked him why that was so important. His comment was that the agency had to employ M.B.A.s so clients would have someone their M.B.A.s could speak to. "You see," he went on, "they're interchangeable. They should mirror each other."

Therein lies the problem. They should not be interchangeable. It's more important that the account person or planner or whomever is strategically directing the process be able to recognize or feel that the creative people are coming up with something that is a unique execution of a strategy. It's not simply being able to write a good strategy that's required. It is more important that the executive be able to use his or her business expertise to sell the agency's product. And that product is not running shoes, toothpaste or whatever. It's the advertising for running shoes, toothpaste or whatever.

Second, the ability to write a strategy is important from the standpoint that it effectively focuses the creative team on the key product benefit to be featured. Here it is important for the executive to set a tone that allows the creative process to thrive, and it's here where understanding of the consumer via market research is critical but not an end in itself. The creative executive needs to be comfortable distilling and interpreting the hard data, knowing when the research should be trusted, when there's too much of it and when it has only become self-serving. I often wonder if "Gone With the Wind" would have made it to the screen if all we had had to depend on were the results of viewer-preview surveys.

Third, you need to create an environment that allows all parties in the creative process to participate. The talented creative manager understands the balance between overemphasizing the marketing strategy and enabling the creative team to do its job. At the same time, creatives must understand that their art is commercial and, as such, should pay off a marketing strategy. In conjunction with this, you also need to make sure the client becomes an advocate in the effort. Nobody wants to feel left out, especially the client who is footing the bill.

Finally, the task is to sell the work. After all, aren't marketing and advertising about selling? In this case, it's the agency's product that then becomes a key ingredient in defining the client's product. To succeed here, the creative manager must truly believe in the work, as this process will often involve using "touchy-feely" descriptions to make business sense.

This summary of required strengths is, I believe, as applicable today as it was when Doyle Dane Bernbach burst on the scene with "The Bug" advertising for Volkswagen. Yes, it was simpler then. There were fewer advertising vehicles available. The Internet wasn't even an idea, and digital technologies like TiVo weren't threatening the simplicity of doing a commercial in 30 or 60 seconds. And, finally, we weren't worried about the agency's stock value. Maybe, as a result, we did understand that the creative process is a fragile one that succeeds or fails on the ability of the creative manager.

Edward Keller is assistant professor of marketing, communications and arts, City University of New York. Previously he spent his career at agencies such as Ogilvy & Mather and McCann Erickson.
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