Tom Bedecarre remembers his first real taste of life as an account person at an agency ruled by creative staffers. Before arriving at Hal Riney & Partners in 1984, Bedecarre says his dialogue with the creative department at Ogilvy & Mather was more like a monologue: ‘You will have ads done two weeks from now. You’ll show them to the account group first, and the account group will take them to the client.’

Bedecarre, now chairman of Citron Haligman Bedecarre in San Francisco, believed this dictatorial approach could be exported to Riney, an agency founded by a creative legend. Early on, he told a Riney creative staffer he thought some work missed the mark, and that it shouldn’t be presented to the client. The response? ‘Well, bring it up with Hal because that’s what we’re going to show.’

Obviously, the depth of talent in the creative department is a decisive factor in the quality of work produced by an agency. However, account people at agencies with showcase work say their success in such an environment stems from an intimacy with the creative process, which is not common at larger, account-driven shops. There are exceptions–BBDO, for instance–but, as a rule, ‘creative-driven’ account people at regional agencies are part pitchmen, part straight man, part mediator and, yes, part of the creative team.

‘In the old days, before 1975, account managers at creatively focused agencies were seen as salesmen. Now, you don’t look at account managers as salesmen,’ says Tom Messner, a founder of Messner Vetere Berger McNamee Schmetterer/Euro RSCG, New York, and a creative director. ‘You have to see them as contributors to the creative product, people the clients trust.’

Selling ideas to the client remains a huge part of the challenge, a task that requires a different skill level because some of the ideas seem to come out of left field. Peter Minnium, a senior vice president and group account director at Cliff Freeman and Partners, New York, remembers presenting the ‘Toozy Doozy’ concept to client Little Caesars in 1993. The commercial showed the reaction of five comic figures to a special offer (two pizzas for $5.99), including an older man shaking his head to create an exaggerated flapping of his jowls, which was then shown in slow motion.

The client’s reaction?

‘It was almost like what happens at a cocktail party when you tell a joke that’s a little bit out of the norm,’ Minnium says. ‘People don’t know whether to laugh, slap you or leave the room.’ But Little Caesars bought the idea. To illustrate another premise, Minnium and others at the agency decided to dress a dog in a wedding gown and paraded the animal down the conference table to sell the idea of a dog wedding planner for another pizza price promotion.

‘Much of advertising is designed to go well beyond the confines of the TV set,’ Minnium says. ‘It’s designed to elicit an emotional response.’ The dog in drag demonstrated the promotion in a concrete, visceral way and proved a successful sell for Little Caesars’ $7.98 deal for two pizzas, two crazy breads and two soft drinks. Again, Minnium helped hone the concept, and the client said yes, fueling the creative reputation of Cliff Freeman and Partners.

The National PromoFlor Council initially thought Buzz, a 300-pound guy in a bee costume, was an unusual vehicle to use to sell fresh flowers, says Valerie DiFebo, executive vice president and group director at Deutsch. ‘When you first look at the work, you think it’s sort of wacky,’ she relates. ‘You go to the (client), and present it. They look at you like you have 14 heads.’ Selling the creative idea–a costumed bee as the ideal floral guide–is a skill that the account people must master. ‘Not everyone on the street can do it. You can’t have any dopey account person get up and say, ‘A bee is good because a bee knows flowers.” In other words, the AEs stressed the wisdom of using Buzz to help customers discover the joys of giving flowers, and the client took a leap of faith.

Being an account person at a creative shop like Cliff Freeman is more difficult than doing that same job at a larger agency, claims Minnium, even though the smaller agency’s clients are willing to pony up for edgy work. ‘It’s not because you have to fight with creatives and tell them they can’t do the work,’ he explains. ‘You know it’s right. You have to convince the client that it’s right.’ AEs follow the idea from conception to presentation, helping it mature and evolve.

Account people cannot just ‘drop a bomb on creatives and expect them to figure it out,’ says Robert Riccardi, partner at Goodby, Silverstein & Partners in San Francisco. Good account people, he adds, know they play a significant role in the end product; they are as accountable for creative executions as the creative teams themselves. ‘(Our creatives) know that I will be there for them,’ he says. ‘So, when I come to them with things about the client, they listen.’

‘The successful account executives at a creative agency are left-brain people in a right-brain job,’ says Bedecarre. ‘At creative agencies, account people don’t carry authority by the number of stripes on their sleeves–it all revolves around their relationships with (the art directors and copywriters).’ AEs have to prove they’re ‘not just a wolf in sheep’s clothing,’ not just a bag man for the client.

In a perfect world, account people at large multinational agencies should mimic the working methods of their colleagues at creatively focused shops, says Tim Arnold, executive vice president of business development for the North American operations of D’Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles. ‘A good account guy wouldn’t change from place to place,’ he says. ‘The spirit and motivation should be the same.’ Sometimes, an account’s history is grounded in one approach and it’s difficult to get a client to take more chances. ‘Anytime you have multinational business, it’s going to be difficult for account and creative people to collaborate because of the sheer number of people involved,’ argues Arnold. ‘But it’s important and should be something to aspire to. It’s about leadership, not management.’

Part of the reason clients sign off on edgy campaigns, aside from the belief that the work is grounded strategically, is due to the relationship that account directors help build and nurture between the client and the agency. Kathy Spraitz, who has shuttled between Fallon McElligott in Minneapolis and Fallon McElligott Berlin in New York for the past decade, agrees. ‘When I go into a meeting with a crazy idea, my role is not to be the radical one,’ she says. ‘I have to be the link of trust and confidence because clients look to (account people) for faith. We buoy the creative process. We’re the ‘sane ones’ in the room.’

While involvement in the creative process is important to generating successful work, the account executive must maintain enough distance from the work to be able to analyze the bottom line–the achievement of the client’s strategic goals. ‘Sometimes work is too out there, and you have to pull in the reins,’ DiFebo says. ‘We never present work that is not strategically sound and doesn’t fit with the brand character.’ DiFebo admits that tensions can arise between creative and account people, that discussions can get heated. But, she says, creative executives at Deutsch never discount the account person’s perspective; and often, they heed their suggestions.

Still, one frustration of selling the work of high-powered creative departments is this: When it comes time for accolades, account people rarely get the recognition. ‘It’s completely OK because it is for the team,’ claims Spraitz. ‘An account person won’t survive at a creative agency if (he or she is) egocentric. You have to like being the unsung hero.’

George Rogers, senior vice president, account director on Arnold Communications’ Volkswagen account, managed to help convince VW executives of the best way to sell the GTI model–through an animated spot starring Speed Racer. ‘On paper, it was crazy,’ Rogers says. ‘Initially, there were a lot of folks scratching their heads,’ he says of VW execs who questioned the viability of identifying a $20,000 car with a Japanese cartoon character. He and others at Arnold countered with the belief that GTI’s target audience, consumers in their 20s and 30s, had an affinity for Speed Racer, having grown up with the cartoon. The campaign, which broke last July, has been a rousing success. According to VW, more than 8,000 GTIs were sold in 1996, compared to 3,500 in 1995.

As the account executive on Arnold’s showcase account, Rogers points out that he is part of a whole. ‘We don’t have a lot of egos around here. Our thing is, the best idea can come from any department. That’s the strength of this organization. I don’t think I’m an unsung hero, but I’m also not the quarterback running the team.’

Copyright ASM Communications, Inc. (1997) ALL RIGHTS RESERVED