Uncreative? Suit yourself, say admen

The faceless account-handlers - the 'suits' with the thankless job of liaising between creative and client - are playing a greater part in the creative process. By Richard Cook
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The suit has a lot to answer for. Ostensibly just a harmless uniform of clerical respectability, in the workplace the suit serves as a convenient shorthand for all sorts of values and attributes. Qualities such as steadiness and responsibility, attributes such as efficiency and intelligence, all magically accrue to the wearer.

And, just as important, certain other qualities and attributes seem to accrue only by their absence. Not least, of course, a sense of rhythm - as even the most casual office party-goer can testify. Men in suits simply can't dance, as all conventional wisdom attests. This may have only a limited resonance in the day-to-day world of work, but the same prejudices go on to suggest other failings. Men in suits, they suggest, simply don't have a creative bone in their body. And that, especially if you find yourself wearing a suit and working in the advertising business, is bad news indeed.

In fact, "suits" is the name given in adland to that most beleaguered of breeds, the account-handler. These are the men and women whose prime responsibility is to liaise with their agency's clients, to present to them ideas developed by the creative department, and to argue passionately on the work's behalf - while at the same time maintaining cordial relationships with their client paymasters. In short, traditionally this role involves being bullied by both sides, creative and client, in almost equal measure.

The comedian Hugh Dennis remembers a typical case. He started his working life at the cosmetics giant Elida Gibbs, part of Unilever , and rose during his time there to become the brand manager for the Lynx range of deodorants, while at the same time moonlighting as a comedian and voice- over artist in ads. So successful had this hobby become that he decided to devote himself to it full time, and duly handed in his notice at Unilever. Before he went, he just had to see through one last advertising campaign.

The account-handler sold the idea - a dazzling location shoot depicting a can of Lynx deodorant rolling down the middle of a crowded bus in an unnamed but volatile Third World country. Only the Lynx wearer was cool enough to realise that this wasn't a bomb, to the relief of the other passengers. The commercial then cut to the obligatory shot of a man spraying the deodorant over his naked chest before the final strap line. The account man sold the ad without too much trouble, and waved goodbye to the creative team as they left for a lengthy, sun-drenched shoot.

It was only after they got back and the account man was wheeled out once more to present the final version of the commercial, that a problem arose. Everybody loved the ad, but the shot of the man spraying Lynx on to his naked chest just didn't last long enough. It was, in fact, about a second shorter than Unilever wanted, and they demanded a reshoot that would cost the ad agency tens of thousands of pounds. Once again the account-handler, the one man who hadn't been on the shoot, who had missed out on the garlands handed out for the idea, the photography and the dialogue, was left in a no-win situation in the middle - even if in this case, having grudgingly agreed to the reshoot, he had his moment in the sun when the newly unemployed Dennis walked into another casting session he was supervising the very next day. "I didn't," Dennis recalls wryly, "get the job."

Unfortunately, the opportunities for that kind of payback are limited. But the good news is that account-handlers are no longer being kept isolated from the whole creative process, as typically they used to be. Increasingly, and despite the suits that they still have to wear, they are invited to participate in the full range of the advertising process, at least by some of the more forward-thinking agencies. Sometimes, nowadays, they even get to go on the shoots, as well.

"A good idea is a good idea wherever it comes from," points out Dan Douglass, creative director at the agency DP&A, and a man who started his own career as an account-handler. "But it's true that a certain mystique still surrounds the creative process, and some people on the account side can still be intimidated by that, which is one of the reasons that we have tried to create more awareness of art throughout the agency."

In fact, DP&A went as far as to turn its agency into a sort of art gallery, showcasing the talents of fine artists on its walls and trying to educate all its staff, not just the creative teams, about art. This was combined with a programme of education that helped to raise levels of knowledge and demystify the creative process, so that all staff, even the account- handling "suits", now feel that they have something to contribute.

"What we want, and what I think more and more agencies want nowadays, is a far more collaborative approach to the whole creative process. We want to get away from the old black box system, where the brief was posted by the account man to the creative department and then three weeks later the creative product was delivered. In those days there was absolutely no connection between the two parties in the interim. Now there almost has to be. And that means a new type of account-handler."

It means a greater flexibility in the people who take on this still important role. They still may get called "suits", they still may not be fully trusted by the die-hard creative element when it comes to selling their work, but it seems that for the first time they will get a chance to indulge that wild, impulsive, creative side of their natures that is currently lurking, underused and undervalued, beneath the pinstriped suits.