Account people in creative industries
Client management is a term we have long been discussed, yet rarely inspected from different industries. Creative industries have long been known for distinguishable dynamics (Caves 2000) and therefore the “tricky” grey area where many business models and theories fail to maintain validity, including client management. As we have witnessed a dramatic growth of communications industry (including advertising, PR, media sectors and so forth) here in Vietnam, there rises a need of practical insight about client management work in this field. This conversation with Phương Huỳnh, Sales Manager of online magazine AnyArena.com, reveals some significant differences of being an account manager in creative industries and suggests tips to cope better with managing accounts, specifically for Vietnam’s context.
On personal presentation and personality
I still remember my first impression with Phương on her first day at AnyArena.com. Our creative team (editors, photographers and content creators) was looking to meeting the new sales manager of the company, who will join with General Director in the company’s sales–marketing force. We heard Phương had been working for 3 years for Dep Magazine, one of the most influential and premium fashion magazine in the industry. Struck by this, one can have two extreme imaginations of the person Phương may be. One, a serious and well-disciplined woman in branded formal outfit. Her steps are firm yet gentle, showing such power of persuasion and determination. Two, a young lady wearing a feminine dress that beautifully compliments her body, along with her curvy long hair – someone you can pick up energetic and warm-hearted vibe just by standing next to or looking at.
Then as Phương Huynh stepped into the office, we knew that we were all wrong. Short hair, very short hair, Phương was wearing a button-up shirt, skinny jeans and a leather backpack, pulling out an edgy street style. She looked around and immediately broke into a smile when she saw us – moderate friendliness and sincerity inside the distinctive appearance.
Phương confirms that individualistic and less formal dressing code is commonly acceptable for sales/account people in creative industries and is one of the most visible features of the sector. This is because as representative of one’s company, sales/account people need to convey the company’s desired image. For instance, in industries that value formality and discipline like pharmacy, account people needs to appear neat and “well-educated”. Similarly, sales/account people in creative industries are supposed to showcase creativity and salience just by the first impression. However, Phương acknowledges that while personal appearance depends on the industry’s nature, personality characteristics are of the profession. In other words, sales/account people in different industries still bear significant resemblance in terms of personality traits, amicableness, open mind, patience to name a few.
On working with Creative Personnel
Compared to other industries, sales/account people in communications industry will have much more interaction with creatives, who are rumored as “emotional, defensive, passionate, egotistical, overly sensitive and mysterious” (Caudron 1994). However, sharing her viewpoint working with creatives, especially now that the Head of Creative Team is also her employer, Phương seems to appreciate and enjoy this experience much. “You’ll learn heaps of interesting things.” Phương sincerely relates the knowledge of media production she has acquired to facilitate her job as well as cool ideas she has been inspired to color her own world. Whether she has a long-time passion for photography, design and therefore pursued a career in this industry, or working with creatives has helped her generate such interests, even Phương herself cannot answer the question. She simply puts it with a smile “Creativity makes one’s life so much interesting and enjoyable”.
“But I do also have heaps of difficulties”, Phương laughed as she warns that there are certain internal account-creative conflicts in the company because of the different perspectives. Creatives, especially those who have much individualism and his/her own taste, often do not want to compromise their creativity and aesthetic sense. Meanwhile, clients have certain requirements that needs following. Such situations are dilemmas yet very common in communications industry. As Vanden Bergh, Smith & Wicks (1986) contend, account people work as generalists who have the big picture of what is going on, but who are not trained for specialist tasks. Meanwhile, creatives are specialists focusing on specific work and therefore may lack of the “big picture” view. This said, the two roles’ conflicting characteristics, accompanied with the lack of understanding or communication, can result in serious conflicts.
To handle these issues, depending on many factors (client’s industry, product/service, and specific situations), Phương adjusts the amount of each “ingredient” in her “recipe”: convincing creative to follow clients’ requirements, reminding clients of creatives’ certain rights and decision-making powers on the creative products, in order to acquire a satisfying result for both sides. “If that still does not work, you need to get the creatives involved”, Phương advises. In the end, an account person is a communicator who conveys the client message to creative. If there is a time when he/she cannot convey the message fully, creatives are lost and start to use their own ways of doing things instead of clients’, the account person has to “bring client-creative together in a meeting and step aside for their direct communication”. Phương shares the times when her clients and creative team, each of whom come to the meeting with his/her own idea to defend, sat together and discussed, they developed something totally new, satisfying to both parties, and more effective than their initial ideas. Much as this sounds like giving up one’s account management task, it is the solution recommended by many experts and scholarly (Solomon 2008). Studies show that besides information, involvement is one of the most important things the account people offer the creative team (Harrington 1969).
“Not the price though!”, Phương laughed and preferred keeping creative away from the money issue.
On dealing with client relationship fails
Literature shows that the common way of categorizing agency-client lifecycle is a 3-stage model: agency evaluation/selection, relationship development and maintenance, agency review/termination (Fam & Waller 2008; Waller 2004). However it is important to note that in reality, an agency-client relationship can have shorter lifespan because of incidents, conflicts that can occur in any of those 3 stages. Within a small industry where there are limited of agencies, in-house client representatives, practitioners repeatedly meet and work with each other. Therefore, one of the most problematic situation sales/account people in communications industry have to deal with is failed client relationship.
Phương shares that best as the agency tries, sometimes, the final work is not as expected. In the worse cases, agency and client have such fierce conflicts in the middle of the working process that they cancel the collaboration. “When a client relationship fails, you cannot say: I’m done with client ABC now. Because you are not. You may be done with that particular client, but will meet again its representative who jump jobs into other brands in that product/service category”, Phương proposes. That is why mending broken relationships is essential. Phương’s suggestion is to support clients with other services to compensate the unsatisfying result. For example, high-end fashion brand ABC’s books the agency to photograph their event and the album turns cheap-looking (compared to the client brand image). The agency offers a free article that portrays client products as cutting-edge fashion.
During the interview, it surprises me (in a good way) that Phương rarely talks about bad client incidents. Even when she does, she mentions in the way that things happen because both sides lack of understanding rather than blaming the clients. Having worked with Phương for a few months, I still have not experienced any of Phương’s negative words about clients. This may be the more important reason why Phương manages to maintain good relationships with old and new clients through their working process’s ups and downs.
Phương is a proof of life that there should be no stereotype of how a sales/account person should be like. Not too much of friendliness that overwhelms potential clients. Not too much of sweetness and amicability that crosses the professional/personal lines. A balanced combination of professional skills, unique personality traits (like having a hobby/interest of one’s own) and the understanding of different perspectives, different parties will make a good client managers in creative industries.
Words: Lê Thanh Phương
Caudron, S 1994, ‘Strategies for managing creative workers’, Personnel Journal, vol. 73, no. 12, p. 104.
Caves, RE 2000, ‘Creative industries: Contracts between art and commerce’, Harvard University Press.
Fam, KS & Waller, DS 2008, ‘Agency–Client Relationship Factors Across Life-Cycle Stages’, Journal of Relationship Marketing, vol. 7, no. 2, pp. 217-236.
Harrington, LA, 1969, ‘The account executive’s contributions to the creative team: involvement, information, and inspiration’, in A Handbook for the Advertising Agency Account Executive, pp. 175-179.
Huynh, P 2012, interview, 30 December.
Solomon, R 2008, ‘The Art of Client Service, Revised and Updated Edition: 58 Things Every Advertising & Marketing Professional Should Know’, Kaplan Publishing.
Vanden Bergh, BG, Smith, SJ & Wicks, JL 1986, ‘Internal agency relationships: Account services and creative personnel’, Journal of Advertising, vol. 15, no. 2, pp. 55-60.
Waller, DS 2004, ‘Developing an account-management lifecycle for advertising agency-client relationships’, Marketing Intelligence & Planning, vol. 22, no. 1, pp. 95-112.