Friday 27 July 2012

7 steps to being a great 'suit'

I thought it would be interesting to put down what I believe makes a great 'suit' - that's an advertising account handler to the uninitiated. After 30 years of being one and having mentored quite a few young suits to go on to big rolls in the ad industry, people like Annette King who is now CEO of OgilvyOne Europe and Middle East, I felt there were some key lessons I have learnt which are worth passing on. I think these rules apply whatever type of of agency you work in, from digital to design.  And I think you may find them enlightening whatever your role in the agency.

1. You're job is to sell!  Be under no illusion that as a suit your number one role is to sell but for some mystifying reason selling is often looked down on in agencies and it all gets a bit fudged with adspeak. Our job is to sell and help our clients sell - it's as simple as that and don't let anyone dissuade you otherwise. 

People buy things when they feel they're not being forced upon them, when they are relaxed and enjoying themselves, and that includes agency clients. Think about your own experiences - when you feel uncomfortable or you're getting the hard sell, the tendency is to walk away - and if you do buy something in those circumstances, don't you come to regret it? Well it's no different with selling ideas and creative work to clients. Your job is not to bludgeon a client in to accepting creative work. If you do bamboozle them in to buying an idea, it will invariably only come and back and bite you somewhere unpleasant. 

I remember working for a great Account Director called Andrew Bethell at Yellowhammer in the 80's. He taught me a lot but one of the things he was a past master at was getting the client relaxed when he was pitching some new work and that's all about being natural and chatting to them as if you were talking to a friend in the pub. So in other words it's ok to discuss last night's football, or the wedding you went to at the weekend, or more importantly what they did at the weekend. Or in the case of Peter Gittoes, the head of marketing for Barclays Bank in the mid-80's, his passions were photography and typography and I remember Andrew would discuss them at length with him before the meeting got going. He also sold him some groundbreaking campaigns.

2. Enjoy your client. People buy things from people they like.  To be a great account handler you have to like and be interested in people and that means liking and being liked by your clients. Two of my best friends for the last thirty years are clients I met in my mid-20's and I count many of my other clients over the years as good friends. If this is a struggle for you then you're probably in the wrong job. Having this kind of relationship with a client means they can pick up the phone and have an honest conversation with you if something is not working out for them, which means you get chance to put it right. It also makes the job much more enjoyable and rewarding. But always be professional and don't think friendship means you can be sloppy. I recall being out at a club in the early hours of the morning with a client who I got on very well with;  he was head of marketing for Marina Seafoods, a Danish Company we worked for and we'd both had a few beers. He asked me whether the agency was busy and I replied something to the effect that we were absolutely gangbusters. The next day he called me to let me know that he was giving a new brief to one of the other agencies on the roster because he didn't want to overload us - he was being genuinely considerate but I learnt a valuable lesson from that incident.

3. Be enthusiastic. Now you may think this sounds like stating the obvious but I have met many young account handlers and a few older ones, who simply fail to have enthusiasm. I remember sitting through a presentation by a young account manager at Beechwood, the agency I started and ran with John Wood in the 90's. The work he was presenting was to our client HMV (this was before the spectre of downloads had appeared) and it was a great campaign but by the end of the meeting I was feeling remarkably downbeat. He had simply sold it without any enthusiasm and this lack of excitement had been communicated to everyone in the room. I pulled him to one side after the meeting and asked him whether he was excited about the work, he replied that he was incredibly excited and as a music fan it was the type of campaign he had always wanted to work on. When I explained to him how his demeanour came across he was crestfallen and said that he'd been so nervous about presenting the work it must have been why he seemed that way. To his credit I never saw him unenthusiastic again; his name was Ameet Chandarana and he's now MD of digital agency, Maynard Malone. So be enthusiastic about the work, if you're not, how can you expect your client to be?

4. Create some theatre. Clients have to sit through many boring meetings in which the most exciting thing they see is a 3-d coloured chart from the finance department but you are their advertising agency and that gives you a license - a license to create theatre. 

So use everything you can to create a sense of drama and excitement - use film, use music, use actors, as I once did getting some young RADA students to recreate a whole scene in a bar to make a point about young people's attitude to whisky, or deck the boardroom out in Christmas decorations and serve mince pies and mulled wine as I once did in July when selling in a Christmas campaign to Waterstones, or get the visual of the poster done for real and parked outside the agency on an advan, which I once did for The Childrens Society Charity, or get a real front door made which we took to the pitch for Alliance & Leicester Building Society to show them what their direct mail looked like pushed through the letter box and falling on the doormat with all the other junk mail - we won the business. So you get the idea, don't be apologetic, be enthusiastic, go for it and create some drama.

5. Believe in the brand. You've probably heard this one before - David Ogilvy wrote about its importance in the book that got me in to advertising, 'Confessions of an advertising man' and I was fortunate enough to meet this original 'Mad Man', when I worked for Ogilvy and Mather in the early 80's.  However, I'm always surprised by how few 'suits', walk the talk. I remember many years ago sitting in a long strategy meeting with Beefeater Gin and several of their other agencies and at the end of the meeting we all adjourned to a nearby bar with our client. I was horrified to hear the head of the PR agency ordering, " A gin and tonic";  he hadn't said, "Beefeater and tonic", or at the very least enquired what gin was going in to his G&T. I can remember the look on the client's face until this day - he was stupefied - this one thoughtless gesture had undermined everything we had been discussing for the last three hours. Here is another good example. About 10 years ago we were pitching for the Matalan account - it was a big account and we were up against some tough opposition. Going in to that pitch without all six of us wearing Matalan clothing was simply out of the question. As we sat in reception awaiting our turn, the preceding agency walked out garbed in standard agency attire, Armani, Paul Smith and so on. As we saw this I remember the feeling of growing confidence which came over us. Ten minutes in to the pitch the then CEO, John King, now CEO of House of Fraser, stopped the meeting and started passionately discussing what we were all wearing, including the fact he was wearing the same suit as one of us. Now that by itself didn't win us the business but it sure made for a great atmosphere in their boardroom and it gave them greater confidence in what we were selling. Oh yes and we won the business.

6. Choose your creative 'battles' wisely. Opportunities to sell truly great creative work come along rarely and even more rarely does it coincide with a client who is prepared to take risks and push the boundaries. But you can increase the number of chances of this happening by having built that trust with your client. I put 'battles' in inverted commas because although that's what they are often called in the business, if they are a battle, you have lost before you begin. 

Sometimes selling in groundbreaking and innovative work can take a long time but you need to take your client with you, step by step. Anything and everything you can do, needs to be done to give them confidence and help them sell the work to their board of directors. I'm stunned by how much great creative work never gets out of the blocks because the agency believes the client will get it from a script or a few scribbles. In my experience they won't, so you need to do everything you can to help bring that work to life, which means make stealomatics (mood films), play them the music (loud), do a speculative voice over, or some speculative photography - what ever it takes!

When I was twenty three I worked on the Manpower account; they were the world's largest recruitment agency and I was due to go to the States  (for my first visit) with my account director to present a radically new campaign to their board in Milwaukee. The night before our departure my account director got sick and couldn't go, so I found myself as a very junior account handler in a very senior role, all by myself. The creative work featured Pierre Le-Tan, a celebrated French artist who was hot at the time and was a quantum leap away from what this conservative mid-west company had done before. I was meant to be presenting to Mitchell Fromstein, a legendary character who had built the company in to an international powerhouse. I spent all morning with his board of directors, who had to be said were grey suited and very sobre - it was a no show from Mr Fromstein. I took the board though the work at great length, the thinking and strategy behind it and showed them the visuals which we'd actually had drawn up by Pierre Le-Tan. The board were umming and ahhing, they weren't sure, they had their reservations, they could see lots of issues with it,  it wasn't really Manpower, it might alienate some of their clients - the conversation continued in this vein all morning when suddenly a whirlwind entered the room and a small, older, dapper man was standing at the head of the table. I got to my feet ready to go through the full presentation once again. "Siddown", he said "and just show me the work". I did as I was told and after a minute looking over the work he said, "I love it, let's run it".  he turned to the rest of the board and said, "What d'you guys think?".  As one the reply came back in chorus, "We love it too Mitchell".  And from this I learnt a very important lesson: always try to get to the main man as you will stand a much better chance of getting bold and innovative work approved rather than it dying by committee.

7. Remember your manners. Now you may think you really don't have to mention manners to a suit but I'm afraid you do.  I was of an account handling school that travelled backwards in the taxi, made sure I had the money to pay for it, carried the artbag, ran down to put money in the client's parking meter, poured the coffee, took their coat and ran in to the street to hail them a cab at the end of the meeting - I'm not sure they make them that way any more but mores the pity. Let me give you an example of a lack of manners I recently witnessed. I was at an agency (who will rename nameless) function and I was horrified to see two of the agency suits with glasses of champagne in hand (which they had got from the free bar), walk up to their client, who was without a drink, start chatting and not even realise the awkwardness of the situation. I've known that client for fifteen years and dived in and offered her mine and went off to get another. This may all sound trivial but it's not, manners really do maketh man or in this case women and treating a client as a valued guest in the way you would treat a visitor in your own home is important. It makes them feel good when they visit the agency, makes them feel welcomed and is all part of 1-6 above.

I could write more about rehearsing for meetings and timekeeping and attention to detail but I suddenly realise this is a very long blogpost and there is probably a book in all of this and who knows I might just write it.

(Also see, '7 steps to being a great Client')


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