What Creative Account Leaders Bring to Advertising Today

The suit, refitted again

In the late '90s, back when I was a know-it-all account executive with hair, I wrote an op-ed called "The Suit, Refitted," intended to be a manifesto for my fellow account leaders on something I called "Creative Account Leadership"—basically, how to be an AE that creative people don't hate. 

"Account people will thrive only when their singular focus becomes the very tangible product that every agency should provide its clients—great advertising," Young Me wrote. 

Since then, promoting a creatively oriented style of account leadership has been my personal roadside snake church. "What am I doing today to move great work forward?" has been an organizing principle of each working day. I've always felt if I go out there and contribute to making great stuff for my clients, then the rest of it—the financials, relationships, biz dev, attracting and retaining talent—will all work itself out. 

Well, that was before the Internet, before behemoth holding companies, before Big 6 accounting firms turned into management consultants, and before ad-tech robots started their march to kill us and take our jobs—before advertising itself became a dirty word. Back then, ads were art, and creative was a noun. Creative was that magic multiplier that marketers and their agency partners both believed in, albeit to varying degrees. 

As much as it hurts my heart to say it, most clients don't care about creative anymore. What they care about is, as it turns out, what they've always cared about—growth. In that world, creative-as-a-noun matters a whole lot less.

While the creative product may have lost its lofty perch in the marketing food chain, creativity is still the most disruptive weapon we have for driving the business and brand growth that clients crave. Which makes now a pretty awesome moment for agency account leaders, especially creatively minded account people. 

We just have to look at creativity in a different way—creative as a verb. We can approach account work in an entirely new way. Creative is no longer the work product of a single department that account folks are meant to dutifully shepherd and defend, but rather an active way of working across the entire agency.

I've updated my Creative Account Leadership manifesto to recognize that shift and the potential for account people to bring creativity to their jobs like never before. 

Create conditions that make brave work possible. 

Account folks may not be primary creators of the work, but what they do create are the conditions within our agencies and our client organizations for those big, bold creative ideas to actually live in a risk-averse business climate. Creative account leaders are always thinking a meeting ahead. They have an uncanny ability to see around corners and anticipate what's coming at us next. They lay the groundwork that earns the trust that gets clients to believe in a little magic—while the rest of the world just wants to see the math.

Solve, don't sell. 

There are people who listen to formulate a reply, and those who listen to truly understand. Creative account leaders are active listeners, asking beautiful questions, scanning client conversations for opportunities to solve problems with creativity. Masters of orchestration, they bring together the right players at the right time throughout the strategic and creative process. Introducing subject matter experts and new agency capabilities in a way that feels like a favor, not an upsell—because we listened. 

Contribute. Bring ideas. Be indispensable. 

David Ogilvy once divided account people into two types—custodians and contributors. Creative account leaders are active contributors to the creative process. They wait for no one, they bring ideas to the table regularly and fearlessly. Ideas that could change a clients' business model, ideas to sell their product in a whole new way, ideas for how to make their best employees feel like rockstars. Creative account leaders contribute by bringing ideas rooted in their unmatched knowledge of their clients' business, objectives and challenges. And they have the thick skin of their creative counterparts; their egos don't bruise when someone tells them their baby's ugly. They do what a good creative does—they dig deeper and come back with more. 

Momentum is currency. Own it. 

There are accounts in every agency that are on fire, always making, the momentum is palpable. And others that are clearly stuck, the ones that are having meetings about their next meeting. Creative account leadership can be the difference maker. After a successful presentation, they rally the troops, make a plan and get ideas into production, fast. Faced with a barrier, creative account leaders are relentlessly solutions-oriented, matching every problem with at least two ways to make it go away. They have an innate producer/maker mindset that often means bringing an idea to life (or keeping it alive) through the sheer force of will. 

Bring infectious optimism in the face of cynicism. 

Creative account leaders bring a beginner's mind to every new client assignment. They see possibilities others might miss, they thrive on the pursuit of the possible, and they find the magic in the mundane. I've found creative account leaders often care more than anyone else, sometimes more than their own creative teams or clients—well past the point any other sane, reasonable person would've stopped. A sort of delusional positivity is the hallmark of every creative account leader. 

The last 20 years in advertising have reframed how I think about creative, from talking about ads as art to what it looks like today—developing custom creative solutions to our clients' business problems.

One thing that hasn't changed is my belief that a creative approach to account work has always been the secret weapon inside the most prolific agencies. Unless a bold idea gets sold, produced and out in the world, it can't drive growth for our clients. And the opportunity for account folks to actively contribute to the work has never been greater. 

So to my fellow account leaders, I ask you to bring your curiosity, your business know-how, your irrational enthusiasm, and yes—your ideas. The vitality of our entire industry depends on it.

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Jeff Graham
Jeff Graham is president and CMO of Cactus.

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