No accounting for taste

Tim Rich ponders the growing gulf between designers and account handlers, and puts forward a few helpful tips on how they can better work together

Tossers. Bag-carrying toadies. Suppliant creeps.

There have been many harsh epithets aimed at account handlers, and their contribution to the creative process is usually overlooked. It occurred to such an extent in the advertising industry that the National Advertising Benevolent Society (NABS) created a campaign educating people about the stresses such dismissiveness could cause. It happens in design too, but there’s never been a high-profile education campaign into the value of non-designing design people. The problem is getting worse.

OK, I’ve been guilty of criticising account handlers myself. They make perfect slow-moving targets when discussing how strong creative ideas can be diluted. But it wasn’t very big or clever of me to be so damning, not because there aren’t loads of mediocre account people out there ruining fresh thinking with their nervy client-pleasing, but because there are plenty of great ones that never get credit, and that’s a more original story.

Why is the gulf between account handlers and designers so wide? It’s partly because the discussions come in the form of words, and, as I keep saying, designers often aren’t very comfortable with words. When talk turns to choice of fonts, colours, imagery and the like, many abandon any attempt to orally debate and simply launch their nuclear weapon: “Well, what do you know, you’re not even a designer.”

Military terminology called the principle behind hostile countries having nuclear weapons as a strategy for maintaining peace Mutually Assured Destruction, or MAD. Designers launching their offensive weapon are likely to wreck working relationships and will probably destroy the creative potential of the project too. How much better it would be for discussion to stay within the realms of logic and measurability. Questions should be brought back to the brief and ideas interrogated against objectives: Will the target audience really prefer to read that information through seven point Gill Sans? What is the aim behind degrading the image so it looks like something brought up by David Carson’s next door neighbour’s dog? And so on. The individuals might disagree over certain issues, but at least the debate has moved to something more tangible than taste.

Keeping discussion focused on objectives, reasons and issues helps to avoid the tyranny of monomania. It doesn’t mean that unusual, lateral ideas won’t win through, it just means the champion of that idea has to clearly rationalise why it works. Ultimately, a client is paying for effectiveness, not visual self-expression, and words must be found to support the thinking going on.

The monastic design method – on-screen, just the designer and the screen, in virtual silence – represents a major contribution to this problem. I’m amazed more consultancies don’t use their studio walls as an internal gallery of on-going work. It gets ideas out of the anal retentive’s control mechanism (the Mac) and into an area where people can see it, learn from it and – God forbid – contribute to it. Doing that must assist with promoting more fruitful discussion between account handlers and designers.

Could account handlers be doing more to support their cause? Are there enough high-calibre account handlers in the business to change perceptions? Should consultancies put more emphasis on account handling skills? My answers would be yes; don’t know; and many should. I think an increasing number of groups are going to start looking to the ad industry for its account handling talent, and that would be a positive development.

True, there are lots of wankers in agencies, but most of them won’t be attracted to a job in design anyway (“it’s a bit poncey”). A migration of good people would bring a healthy dose of big idea thinking, the confidence to push groups closer to clients’ profound strategic activities and a better understanding of consumers’ behaviour. They’re also used to dealing with jumped-up creatives who curse them for brown-nosing clients, so they will be ready and willing to take the fight for respect into the studio.

CSD joins the campaign

In my previous column I noted that a number of architects had complained to the ITC regarding the McDonalds “Money for Nothing” advertisement. Now, I hear, the Chartered Society of Designers has weighed in with a complaint too. It’s good to see the British design industry reacting with such humour and self-confidence to this profound threat to its reputation, and great that the CSD has found such an important campaigning issue at last.

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