Making Stuff Happen

By Tim Arnold

Over beers one night down in Miami, Jim Patterson, JWT’s creative director then, James Patterson, best-selling author now, pulled me up short and told me two things he wanted me to know: First, he said, even though I was an account guy, he thought I could be a creative director somewhere, but not while I was at JWT, because that was his job. And second, while he’d never admit it to anybody else, he agreed with me that it is account people who really make an agency work.

He was absolutely right. Not about me, but about account people. Trouble is, we don’t believe it. And if we don’t, how could anybody else?

Here’s the deal: You do not need permission to “stand and be counted”; there’s no need to wonder when “the perfect time for an account-management revival” is, as some of my fellow Adweek contributors would have it.

Here’s where you’ll find permission, if indeed you need it: Reach down and grab yourself by the proverbial cajones (this is gender-neutral), and ask yourself why the hell you’re in this business. Or try to remember why you got into it in the first place. If it’s anything less than a monster jones for a great idea, an addiction to controlled chaos and just enough arrogance that you think you have something to contribute, then not only should you not be an account person, you probably shouldn’t even be in this business.

The perfect time? Yesterday. Today. Right now, before it’s utterly too late and we’ve finally given up everything except our dress codes and our ability to write status reports.

Without good account people, this business tanks.

First of all, think of it this way: We, all of us, are in the business of solving problems. We’re supposed to figure shit out, turn it into big ideas and produce solutions. Solutions to business issues, marketing objectives, unrealized opportunities, brand platforms, creative briefs. In the end, we’re supposed to sell something. “Good ads sell stuff,” as my very first creative partner continues to say to this day. Bad ads don’t. If your solution isn’t producing something measurable (relevant attitudes, awareness, likability, buzz, consideration/trial/usage/repeat, something), then it sucks. That’s it. That’s the deal.

The other deal is there’s no one perfect solution to any problem. Might be advertising. Might not. Might be a promotion. Might be a well-placed article in the Wall Street Journal. Might be a Jessica Simpson semi-stupid viral something on behalf of your client’s teenaged product. Point is: Who’s got the broader view of this problem/solution thing? The copywriter? The direct marketer? The PR guy? Simpson’s agent? Nope. Nope. Nope. And hell no.

It’s you, dude! The account puke. We’re supposed to have a grip on the big picture. It’s our job to understand the bidness. We’re supposed to be the primo get-problems-solved guys (also gender-neutral), the ambassadors of the entire agency, the ones out in front, representing the clients’ business problems and the agency’s ability to solve them. The guys in the very hard place between the rock and the other rock.

That’s our job. Get problems solved.

By the way, most of the best damned account guys I see coming up now are women. Cool.

Then there’s the client. It’s his business, his money, his decision. (Or hers, hers and hers). Accept all this or die. But—it’s your client! So, know his business, figure out how to give him a viable “return” on his investments—and lead him toward the decisions you and your agency are looking for.

And here’s another hard one: Do not make the client do your job. Do not make him say no to work that’s off strategy, at the very least. (And the strategy includes the “brand personality,” if it’s a good strategy). Somebody inside the agency has to do that. If the creative director hasn’t said it by the time it gets to you, then it’s on you, along with the strategic planner. No matter what else, the agency owes the client solutions that are true to the strategy. Get it on strategy—the rest is upside. This, too, will earn you and the agency respect. And the more respect you generate, the better your chances will be to sell even greater work. Funny how that works.

So, where do you fit into this problem-solving equation? What about you, Account Person? You’re the conductor—and you’d best inspire the whole orchestra. You’re the captain, and you’d better have a bunch of pumped-up fighters following you in. You’re the lead guitar player; play lead, but not so loud that you lose the rest of the band. You da Man. You da Wo-Man.

Look, every last person in this business, at least every one with a pulse, is in a … creative business. Next time you traffic managers are at a cocktail party, OK, at a bowling alley, see what happens when you tell your buds that you work for an advertising agency. Damn! Where they make commercials? Cool! You’re in. 99.9 percent of this world ain’t in this business, don’t understand this business and have no illusions of being qualified for this business. But you are, you do, and you are, maybe.

But account dogs have to make it work.

And here’s how:

Lead. Inspire. Take responsibility. Protect. Encourage. Cultivate mutual respect. Think. Create. Invent. Reject failure. And learn from it. Sell. The idea. The ads. The agency. In that order. Say no. Say yes. Say yes but. Say not so fast, if that’s what it takes. Assume the damned position. But pick your shots. Go for the big ones.

Account guys have the hardest jobs in the ad business. Done right. Otherwise, bag carriers. (By the way, they’re all hard.) This is not a job of entitlement. It’s a position of responsibility. You have to earn it. And once you do, says me, it’s the greatest job in show business.

I don’t know who tagged us “account executives.” Account manager is only slightly better. If we must be titled account anything, I’d suggest Account Leader. Execute? Please. Manage? Only if that’s all you can do. Lead? Absolutely. Follow me. We’ll take this big, fat, scary idea and convince our client that it will send his business through the roof. Truth is, I think it’s even more accurate to think of ourselves as the people in charge of “making shit happen.”

Here’s how:

It’s your business. Own it. Take responsibility for it. Assume that if the agency fails, it’s your fault. Your job is to make your client’s job easier. Your agency’s job is to solve problems, to make a positive contribution to your client’s business. Period. If the collective effort is not moving the needle, some damned needle, it’s your fault. This fear of failure is an exquisite motivator. The realization of success is a miraculous high. Go for it. And assume it is you, not your boss, not your direct report, not the creative director, you, who is going to make it happen.

Then, own the idea. At one time, we were literally responsible for the strategic idea anyway. Then we gave it away. And account planners were invented to fill the void and cultivate the Big Idea. Fine, but guess what? It’s still our responsibility. If the brand is not fueled by a gigantic strategic idea, then we’ve let our planner off the hook. Dig in. Say not yet, go back and get a big idea. Or think of one yourself.

Then, own the creative. This is trickier. And much more difficult. And utterly logical.

Think of it this way: On behalf of the entire agency, it’s our ass on the line. We have to make it work. Because we’re going to have to help sell it. We’re going to have to gather enough confidence around it to convince the client that what we’ve got is going to make his life better. Or at least his next meeting with his boss. Find something about it to believe in. If you don’t, you’re a bag carrier, and doomed to compromised misery. If you succumb to this for an extended period of time, you will soon realize that it really sucks. And you’ll go to bed every night feeling like shit, unless you’re drunk, or high. And then you’ll wake up feeling like shit anyway.

But—if you embrace something you believe in, that you all believe in, and sell that, you are on your way to being an ad (wo)man. This is cool. You’ll wake up every morning ready to kick some butt. And even if you don’t sell it this time, you and your agency will know you’ve given it your best—and so will your client.

By the way, this is a big deal: This implies an obligation for strategic and creative people to convince you there’s something there to believe in. Which is going to completely piss off a lot of them. Which is why you have to earn your way into all this.

Good account guys can make creative people stronger and braver and better. Same with strategic planners.

By the way, we’re all salesmen. Anybody with a heartbeat—including people in the ad business—are salesmen. And here is the best lesson in salesmanship I ever learned: Believe in yourself first, then what you’re selling. The rest of it is probably what inspired Death of a Salesman.

And if you can’t buy the philosophical argument, buy this one: You’re damned if you do, damned it you don’t. So you might as well do.

Here’s how:

Do the agency the great service of championing a brilliant, scary, innovative strategic idea. Provide them the gift of a confident client who’s expecting creative expressions of the idea that are going to blow him away—and who understands he’ll have to wait long enough for it to develop. Earn this kind of mutual respect, all the way around; you’ll be walking the talk, and you will find yourself in the rarified air of account leadership.

Accumulate enough of these successes, and you become one valuable, knowledgeable, experienced dude, or dudette. Your agency loves you. Your dog loves you. Well, your dog loves you no matter what. And your client loves you—for all the right reasons. You will like this. Trust me, this is good.

So let’s review: Proverbial cajones. Now. Problem solvers. It’s our ass. Something to believe in. Own it. Mutual respect. Earn it. We’re all salesmen. Make shit happen. Feel the love.

And you can’t make any of this up, either. Just do it, dammit. Besides—if not you, who?

Tim Arnold is an agency veteran and a regular ‘Adweek’ columnist. He can be reached at