Making the best better

Account handlers are derided as middlemen, queering the client/creative relationship, but David Bernstein argues these unsung heroes are a designer’s best ally

‘Put the graphic designer back in touch with the client and breathe life back into the profession,’ implores graphic designer James Robinson (Letters, DW 23 October). ‘Graphic designers,’ he says, ‘work in an age of account handlers and middlemen who undermine the client/ designer relationship, and erode any authority that the graphic designer should have.’

The environment he describes is no recent phenomenon. Recognising it, I have some sympathy with Robinson’s critique. And I expect, in this menacing climate, an economic case will increasingly be made for a closer client/designer relationship at the expense of the account intermediary.

But there is a big difference between the elimination of the incompetent and non-productive middleman, and the elimination of the role itself.

I hadn’t long been in advertising before I appreciated the difference between good and bad account handlers. Encounters with the latter elicited my definition of their being ‘someone who goes between two reasonable people, the client and the creative person, representing the first to the second as an ogre and the second to the first as a nut’.

The ace account executive, on the other hand, was (and is) an invaluable working partner with skills and aptitudes that complement those of creative colleagues. The executive may bring focus and rigorously test the creative thinking, not merely report the client’s response but interpret it – if necessary, constructively paraphrasing it to get at the true meaning and, above all, providing insight.

It was an appreciation of these skills – and the need for them – that led to the arrival of the account planner in advertising agencies some 30 years ago. Part-strategist, part-consumer’s advocate, part-creative’s right hand, this was light years away from the stereotype of a bag-carrier.

Another skill of the good intermediary is the ability to recognise where creativity resides – to detect the embryonic idea and help develop it. This is a skill also of the professional creative director, someone who studies, rather than scans, the first draft of an advertisement and discovers the germ of something bigger.

Writers and designers I’ve worked with have often had occasion to thank such an ally for making their best better, and for making the case for its approval more compelling. Not all creatives are good at presenting their work. Some are diffident, embarrassed, even modest. These hang-ups don’t inhibit a good intermediary who is never identified as the idea’s creator, let alone emotionally involved as its parent.

Note, I am not recommending there be no direct contact between client and creative. I believe dialogue is crucial, to avoid misunderstanding and to dispel any myth or prejudice generated by its absence.

Tough times may encourage the conflation of the two roles of creative and account handling, to the discomfiture of the latter. Ironically, my first real job in advertising was as a ‘junior account executive/copywriter’. I would take the brief, re-present it to myself, create the ad with a ‘visualiser’, then present it, first to myself and then to the client, before supervising the production. I spent six months being this dual personality. Initially, I regarded the account executive role as subordinate, but I soon learned the importance of both roles, and of the interplay of analysis and imagination.

Such symbiosis, far from eroding the creative’s authority, in fact reinforces it.

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