8 lessons a creative director learned as an account person

"I thought this stuff just happened," says Leo Burnett's Jeanie Caggiano.

It’s the opposite of "The Odd Couple." Can one person do two jobs and not drive themselves crazy? Here’s the true story of a Leo Burnett hybrid: a creative who’s also an account person. 

In mid-2016, for many reasons, not least of which was that the clients wanted to talk to me, I ended up doing two jobs—Executive Creative Director and Account Director—for about 18 months. Then, a bigger creative job came along, and I went back (mostly) to being a pure creative. But I’ll always take with me the lessons I learned from walking in an account person’s shoes:       

1.         "Everything is your responsibility. Everything is your fault." That was the first thing my second-in-command, a seasoned Account Director, told me. Being a good account person also apparently means anticipating who’s going to be yelling at you next about what. On the flip side, if account people do their jobs well, everyone else gets credit. That perfect setup? Must’ve been the planner. Meeting went flawlessly?  Oh, it was just good chemistry. Fabulous creative? Creatives will happily take all the credit.

But hold on—can we all just admit that the setup and the work were much improved after the 32 probing questions the account people asked yesterday? And that maybe, just maybe, the 3 p.m. lattes the account folks ordered helped when the chemistry in the room was flagging? Until I did the job, I thought this stuff just happened. Truth is, "Account Executive" is the most unappreciated job on the planet. Except for those lucky people who do sludge removal at nuclear power plants. 

2.         A successful negotiation isn’t about the lowest price. Hello, brand-new account head!  You get to do your first negotiation ever! Worse, it’s with a major movie studio!  (Dollars have been changed to protect the innocent.) 

Me: "Can we use (redacted property) in a :30 TV commercial?" 

Movie studio: "Yep. That’ll cost $1MM." 

Me: "Oh."

Movie studio: "But…if you help us promote our upcoming movie by putting a 5-second tag on your commercial, then it’ll only cost $500K." 

Me (thinks): "Wow! I just saved my client $500,000? I’m going to be a hero!" 

I trot back to the client, who promptly says:

Client: "Oh, we can’t promote a movie!" 

I was shocked. Who would pass up that kind of a deal? Well, clients have their reasons.

Me (going back to movie studio): "Okay, they can’t do that. How about we pay full price?"

Movie studio: "Sorry, your spot would air during the promotional period for the movie. Nobody gets to do that without also promoting the movie." 

Me: "Oh." 

Me (thinking hard): "So…what if we paid you more than $1MM and let you do the promoting?"

Movie studio: "Hmmmm… that might just work."

Me (trotting back to client): "Well what if…"

Guess what? They did it. And everybody was happy. But the whole thing was so stressful, I wanted a (redacted anti-anxiety drug) every time we got on the phone. 

3.         Scoping projects and doing budgets REALLY sucks… but it’s worth it. The worst grade I ever got in college was Econ 101. That is a clue that maybe I should not be put in charge of the money. My eyes still glaze over when the spreadsheets come out. But I learned two things: 1) Delegate what you suck at. There are lots of people who are good at the money thing. Get them to do it. 2) The person who controls the money controls everything. When that’s you, you can put it into things that make the creative better. Senior creative hours, proprietary research, consumer discovery, design resources, original music… you name it. 

4.         Once your CMO likes your work, her job has just begun. She still has to sell your idea to her CEO, Chief Legal Counsel, other C-peers, the sales force, other vendors… the list is long. She also has to constantly defend all that moolah the company is "wasting" on marketing, and spend time worrying about pricing, packaging, distribution and more. Being an account person helped me learn to anticipate my CMOs’ issues and give her the ammo she needed to make her case internally—and that helped better work get made. 

5.         The stronger your client relationships, the better the work. Clients only trust you when you treat their problems like your own. It’s why smart, brave clients increasingly seek close relationships with their head creatives. Great clients aren’t afraid to work hand-in-hand with their creatives. But they also have to be able to handle being told "no" and "that’s stupid" and occasionally, "Huh, that could work." (That last is a creative’s code for "I wish I’d thought of that." Take it as the compliment it is intended to be. It means you’re now part of the team.) One of the Leo Burnett quotations I love best is: "Great ideas can come from anywhere. Often, they come from clients." Leo was right.  

6.         We creatives are coddled. (I just heard every account person in the universe say, "Damned right!"). Once it was my job to do the "dirty" work, I realized how lucky we creatives are to be able to focus just on the creative. The downside? It can infantilize us. I’ve seen it breed childlike behavior, like throwing tantrums over work that would be wrong for the client but good for a portfolio. It can also create an "us vs. them" mentality where the creatives are always right, and the account people are always wrong. Guess what? Nobody’s right all the time. Grow up! 

7.         Being a hybrid saves time (and money). As a hybrid, the conversations I used to have with my account director, I held in my own head. 

Creative Me: "This is the idea we’re going to recommend". 

Account Me: "You can’t recommend that! The talent cost is outrageous! They don’t have the budget to produce it." 

Creative Me: But the buzz will be worth the extra cost."

Account Me: "You know, they do have the money, we just need to prove the ROI…" 

By holding both roles, it only took about 2 minutes to get to a decision, where it used to take a week. And, believe me, I was not getting paid two full salaries to do both jobs. (Maybe that was bad negotiation on my part…)

8.         Being a hybrid can also mess with your creative vigilance. You can’t do both jobs perfectly. Once I knew what the business needs were, I noticed myself making compromises I would have fought for harder as a pure creative. Whether that was an idea, a line of dialogue or a director. Did it hurt the work?  I tried to keep it from doing so. But I’m not sure I always succeeded.

Just because you can do two jobs—and do them pretty well—doesn’t mean you should. I now value the separation more than I did before. I’m more valuable as a creative. And the account people I know are more valuable at what they do. Together, we’re unstoppable. 

Jeanie Caggiano is an executive-VP, executive creative director and studio lead at Leo Burnett, overseeing Allstate, Campbell’s, Feeding America, Purina and UnitedHealthcare. 

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