10 things agencies can do to stop “creative vs. account” battles

Like the proverbial old married couple you see bickering on the street corner, agency managers and agency creatives have a relationship that’s often fraught with friction and discord, yet, at the same time, cohesion and dependence. Finding a balance will yield a successful and productive relationship.

With that notion in mind, here are 10 things agencies can do to help eliminate the seemingly endless chafing that goes on between the two sides.

1. Over-communicate. A lot.

Nothing leads to a crisper, cleaner, more productive and loving relationship than communication. If everyone has a clear understanding of all the elements involved in a project and how that project affects each team member, then nirvana is not far away.

Jennifer Hazelett, account director at Raleigh-based Baldwin&, says the relationship must be collaborative, involving all parties early in the project’s development stages. She notes, “Bring us into ideas early enough (even if not fully formed) so that we can help with the strategy of how to present it to the client. Can we have a prep conversation with key decision makers? Are there barriers to approval we can remove?”

Approaching client work like the project is a team sport can vastly improve results. Hazlett adds, “More generally, one of the biggest aids to efficiency and great creative is when creative and account (as well as production, media and anyone else involved) remember that we are all on one team, all working towards one goal of producing effective, great creative ideas. When we truly work together, the results are so much better. And hey, it’s fun!”

From the creative perspective, School of Thought creative director Tom Geary says it’s all about “critical thinking.” He suggests, “Rather than take the client’s request verbatim, ask what’s driving the request. Ask ‘why?’ Because that can lead to something that will benefit the client even more. A great account person will be way ahead of us creatives on understanding a client’s real needs.”

Ask question. Share answers. Become one with one another.

2. Collaborate. A lot. With everyone.

Communication and collaboration must extend far beyond the two camps of account service and creative. Why? Just look and the swiftly changing landscape of the advertising world. It’s like an insane buzzword bingo.

Content producers, brand bloggers and editors are needed to support native advertising and content marketing goals. SEO experts and inbound marketers are needed to ensure that your audience will find your content. Viral seeding experts are needed to ensure that your awesome branded videos attract eyeballs. Social media strategists are needed to both promote a brand’s marketing and to engage with consumers about that marketing. Programmatic media buyers are needed to manage the complexities of today’s online media landscape. PR is needed to create and seed guest post content. And, yes, copywriters and art directors are needed to bring a brand to life, visually speaking.

Gyro associate creative director Jaime Schwarz has some sage advice for both account managers and creatives, saying, “I’ve found the best account people to be empathetic ones, meaning they are not only able to see from clients’ perspectives but ours as well. It’s a rarer quality in the industry than one would think. And the best way for creatives to appease account management is actually through good planners who give us clear and distinct briefs and hold us to them so we make the creative process as clear and predictable (for lack of a better word) for account so they can lay the groundwork for client expectations.”

So it’s no longer about the AE conveying the client’s wishes to a copywriter and an art director who will turn around a couple of print ads and a TV spot. Oh, no. It’s far more complex. And increased complexity requires increased communication and collaboration.

3. Leave preconceptions out of the process.

Nothing ruins a relationship of any kind quicker than when one party shows up assuming they know everything they need to know about the subject or the other party’s mindset. You know what they always say about the word “assume,” don’t you? Right. So don’t be an ass.

Scott Coe, account director at Denver-based Cultivator Advertising & Design, says every project should be approached with an open mind and an accepting attitude. He suggests, “Be open. Great ideas can come from anywhere, and a great agency environment will tap into all of them. That’s probably the single biggest deliverable that an account team wants to see from their creative brethren: an open-minded attitude that collaboration fosters creativity, and that when everyone shares ideas, ideas get better. And the work thrives. If there is a metaphorical fence that both teams just lob stuff over – creative briefs, schedules, concepts, feedback, and so on – the work ultimately suffers.”

So it’s all in. Bare your soul. Share. Express. communicate. Don’t make assumptions. Listen to and be respectful of others’ opinions and viewpoints. And be flexible. Because it’s highly unlikely any project is going to go exactly the way you envisioned it.

4. Allow change agents to take charge and work wonders.

Change is, without question, a constant in the ad world. But change can be a very good thing. A thing that can lead to greatness.

While change can sometimes bring out the worst in people, David Baldwin, “lead guitar” at Raleigh-based Baldwin&, believes it can bring out the best as well – and he has a great approach to making change happen smoothly. He says, “Here’s our simple way of dealing with changes or improvements: if someone comes in with a better way to do something, we just put him in charge of leading the change. This does one of two things: Nothing – in which case any complaining usually stops – or he or she owns it and makes it work. I love the accountability. It’s not like there’s some department in charge of fixing things. You are the department of fixing things!”

He’s right. Change agents can come from anywhere, and why not let those who come up with a great idea, take charge and advocate it across the agency? If something doesn’t seem right between account management and creative and someone has a great idea to make things work better, encourage them to go for it. If the relationship between the agency and the client gets sticky and someone has a suggestion as how to improve things, gladly hand them the ball and tell them to run with it.

5. Like it or not, details matter.

While we’d all love to believe that working in an advertising agency is like living inside an EDM concert performed by a hipster poet whose brother is Bansky, in reality, it’s much more like working on a production line that pumps out Bakugan characters you, instead, wish were Lions. And you know what kind of Lions I’m talking about here.

And while working in an ad agency can have an air of Hollywood, Gillian Lynch, director of client services at Boston-based Winsper, has a more nuts and bolts working in an agency. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. The heady stuff is great, but details matter, too.

She tells me she wants “Reasonable and realistic deadlines — dates we can confidently plan against, and the assurance that they will be met. Timely progress check-ins, updates on status without having to be asked. Written acknowledgment of receipt of email instruction. Early warnings if projects are going sideways. Common language/definitions so we’re all talking about the same things. Informed consulting on project costs, time commitments, etc. Quality control! Version control — we have brought back job jackets to save time. It’s much easier to proofread new rounds if you have a marked up copy of the last round next to it. Questions if instructions/feedback are unclear… the sooner, the better. There’s nothing worse than jamming all week, not being able to review work day of, and hearing that several things weren’t done or guesses were made because the designer was unclear on what client meant.”

Ugh. How pedestrian. And spoken like a true account manager. But, seriously, details and documentation are integral to success. No one likes to get bogged down in the details but they are the backbone of a collaborative process that can result in creative greatness.

6. Be wary of culture differences between agency and client.

While revenue considerations are of paramount importance when considering your approach to a successful agency operation, that’s not the whole picture. And while we’re talking about how account mangers and creative can better work together inside the agency, that working relationship is greatly affected by what’s brought into the agency from outside: clients.

Every agency needs clients to survive. But they also have to be wary of clients who can bring the agency down. Because despite the best of efforts, some clients simply aren’t going to be right for your agency. And you have to spot that early in the process.

Cake Group head of social innovation Stacy Fuller says, “This is a service industry. If your working style and culture are totally disparate, you’re going to have a harder time. It’s not impossible and many times clients are interested in working with organizations that are very different than their own, but all parties in the organization need to be open to that. Both points ladder up to a client being very honest about what they need vs. what they want from a partnership. Going into a pitch with very realistic expectations will help both parties.”

Seconding the importance of culture and highlighting the importance of the ever-elusive “chemistry,” theMIX agency founder and CEO Vanessa Camones added it’s important “not to work with a-holes. If you know you won’t enjoy any part of the client/agency experience with someone, why bother starting the relationship in the first place? At the end of the day, all it does is kill the morale of those working on the account who are doing high-quality work for a thankless client.”

7. Always expect greatness.

A positive attitude brimming with the expectation of greatness can be a powerful motivator to people. Fostering that mindset can do wonders for working relationships within the agency.

Cultivator Advertising & Design creative director Monte Mead wants a true believer in his account managers. He wants, “In a word: enthusiasm. The deep-set belief that any project can be great. The concept of ‘garbage in, garbage out’ has an account side/creative side corollary: ‘expect garbage and you’ll probably get it.’ It’s not always just ‘give us more time and more budget.’ That’s a lame excuse on our part for tepid work. Instead, help create an environment where the problem we’re solving for the client has as few constraints as possible. And help the client share in the idea that every project is a chance for their brand to show greatness.”

Expect greatness. Provide what’s needed to achieve that greatness. And remove any barriers to success.

8. Embrace trust.

Of equal importance to enthusiasm and expecting greatness is trust. But trust comes in two flavors. Explaining this, Baldwin& lead guitar David Baldwin says, “Two things creative people want from their account side partner: someone they can trust to ‘get’ great ideas, who loves great work and treats it as their own; and someone they know the client can trust to ‘get’ their business, who can build from that understanding to create new opportunities.”

Heresy president and creative director Josh Sklar adds, “I have found the only way to ensure the persnickety process of bringing a creative campaign to life doesn’t mortally wound me along the way is to swallow my ego (as much as I can get down there) and forge a relationship with the account director — one built on the rare platform of mutual respect. Otherwise, it becomes a competition of who can undermine the other the best. Usually that happens when the account director says they won’t change your client presentation, but go ahead and do it anyway.”

And that’s not an outcome anyone is looking for.

For great work to be created, the creator must have the confidence that the creative process is being supported. Creatives must trust that account management has their back. Account management must trust that creative is approaching the job with the vim and vigor of an American Ninja Warrior.

9. Honesty is the best policy.

You’ve heard this one since you were a kid. And you’ve also heard that it’s much easier to recount an experience if you don’t have to remember the lies you crafted to support your faux story. So, yes, honesty is always the best policy.

TDA_Boulder ECD Jonathan Schoenberg advises, “Candor is a tremendous time saver. Beyond that, the flexibility to adapt to whatever the situation calls for . But with a healthy talent for candor, account people are empowered, and creatives are not infantilized.”

Infantilized. Love that. No, wait, hate that! That’s the worst thing an account manager can do to a creative. To treat them with kid gloves. To shield them from the “real world” client. Everyone’s an adult here and they should be treated as such.

And for those creatives who think account managers are just a bummer, Schoenberg, who is, let’s not forget, a creative, adds, “That whole idea of account people getting in the way of good work is seriously antiquated. Account people often have a better sense of a client’s priorities, and honest communication of those priorities is really what helps creatives the most. The better they can share that POV, objectively, the more the work can recognize the client’s aspirations, and the better it can be.”

10. Don’t allow big data to run your life.

While big data (or any data for that matter) is, of course, important — especially data that helps inform creative and evaluate ROI — there are some who believe marketers are beginning to rely too heavily on big data, using it almost as a crutch to avoid risk.

Amusement Park’s Jimmy Smith (who was a Branded Entertainment Juror for the Clios) is one such person.

Smith suggest the work it takes to develop a successful big idea can’t truly be quantified. Coming from a man who judged Clios, this makes perfect sense. After all, the Clios, Cannes and most other advertising awards organizations don’t, for the most part, award on whether or not an ad was successful; they judge it based upon whether or not it was creative, many times for creative’s sake.

While the fact that, today, we have seemingly endless amounts of data on hand to inform out decisions, we should never let it completely dictate agency life. There is, and should, always be room for the big idea.

So don’t be that old married couple you see bickering on the street corner or at a corner table in a restaurant. Embrace the team aspect of working in an ad agency. Collaborate like that over-sharing social media friend of yours. Because, in this case, over-sharing is a very good thing. It will lead to greatness. And, after all, that’s what we all want, right? Well, that and a Lion, too.

Post by Steve Hall

Steve Hall is a marketing professional, publisher, writer, community manager, photographer and all-around lover of advertising. Steve has held management positions in media and account service at Leo Burnett, Starcom/Mediavest and others, working on such accounts as Reebok, Marriott, Monster.com and Marshmallow Fluff.