Media: The adman adds substance to his style

In many agencies, the line is fading between account-handler and creative, writes Richard Cook
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The Independent Online
At one point in the film North by Northwest, Cary Grant protests against his kidnapping by hoodlums from inside the bar of a top New York hotel.

There are, he points out in a spirited, yet sublimely urbane defence, just too many people dependent on him for their prosperity and happiness - barmen, ex-wives and tailors prominent among them. He simply can't afford the sort of inconvenience a kidnapping might entail. It's a pretty cool response. We can only marvel at the man's sophistication, his grace under pressure, his immaculately cut suit and his eager-to-please smile.

Advertising people shouldn't be surprised, then, to find that the character he is playing is an adman. Roger Thornhill, that character from Hitchcock's famous film, is the very embodiment of the ad agency account-handler. He's a living, breathing caricature of those sharp-suited smoothies whose responsibilities extend to little more than oiling the wheels between ad agencies and their clients.

Unfortunately, as with Cary Grant himself, they don't make them like that any more. Or not in many places.

Traditionally the account-handler's role has been a triumph of style over substance. It is their responsibility to present creative work to clients, sell the attractions of the overall campaign, and generally act as the first point of contact for the client company. Charm and a winning personality are more important attributes than intelligence. Above all though, their job, in the past at least, has been to make sure that under no circumstances were the typically conservative clients exposed to the worst excesses of the creative temperament. The agency creative head, the person with ultimate creative responsibility for the work, might be allowed into the first meeting, but then really only under extreme sufferance. Clients would be much more comfortable, it has long been thought, dealing with some fresh-faced, suit-wearing, freshly scrubbed account-handler than they ever would be being exposed to the potential excesses of the violently unpredictable creative temperament.

That situation is now changing however, and changing with bewildering speed.Creative talents are more comfortable at presenting their own ideas in these media-friendly days, and as a result the traditional barriers between the account-handler and the creative department are being dismantled. Unfortunately, it is becoming difficult for account-handlers to know just how to respond to this challenge, and how to carve out a new role for themselves.

"The changing role of the account-handler is a big issue for all advertising agencies nowadays," agrees Chris Jones, chairman and chief executive officer for J Walter Thompson Worldwide.

"It's clearly not enough that account-handlers are simply relationship managers any more. The whole role of account-handling needs to have a new lease of life because at the moment agencies are taking on more project work and the relationship side of the business isn't nearly as important as it was when I was working through it."

Jones himself is a graduate of the account-handling side of the business and from an era where the progression into agency management was the natural career jump for the successful account man. The problem nowadays is that it is easier to point to what the job has lost in the way of responsibilities and career progression rather than what it has to offer.

"The creation of strategic planning has also squeezed account-handling as a job function," Jones points out, "and it has taken a lot of the intellectual sting out of the job. There's no doubt that the job has become too ill- defined and needs to be given a whole new lease of life. But then there are signs that this is happening at some agencies. The really disappointing thing is that even at its best account-handling is not rocket science, yet it is amazing how few really good ones there are now. We definitely need more good people."

For Jones, as for many of the more progressive ad agencies, that increasingly means people who can offer a broader range of skills, who think of themselves not necessarily as account-handlers or even as creatives, but as advertising people. The implication for new entrants to the market is that they should be comfortable with the whole process, not just their own part of it.

It can even mean - and whisper this - that the relationship between the creative and account-handling functions is allowed to creep ever closer, even if this can lead the unwary into almost as many problems as previously.

"The temptation, at a smaller agency especially, is that it wants to bring out its best creative people to help in pitches and work on the account-handling side of things with clients," Keith Courtney, a Publicis creative, points out. "And when I was creative director at Leagas Shafron Davis I was quite prepared to put on a suit and do that, but the truth is that if you are doing it all the time it can interfere with your writing good ads, which is what they hired you for in the first place. There has to be a balance between performing both roles."

For the account-handlers of the future there also has to be more emphasis on the business. The successful ones will carve out their own niche by using a full range of advertising skills. That doesn't mean that urbanity and a well-cut suit will necessarily be a thing of the past, just that they can no longer be the only attributes the successful account-handler needs.

"We do need a new type of person coming into the industry as account- handlers, says Jones, "but the advantage is that they have more scope now than they ever have in the past to use all their skills - creative, strategic, whatever. They are no longer just the relationship handlers."