This post is a lift of a presentation made for an agency’s junior accout executive training program over 15 yrs ago. It is shared here as a link from a highly editorialized take on my current concerns re advertising creative posted in LinkedIn.

The 7 Deadly Virtues to come are bookended by a Great Given and a Great Obstacle:

The Great Given:

A great account executive wants to do great work.

The Great Obstacle:

Your clients (sometimes even your agency) will do everything in their power to stymie your efforts to be virtuous.

  1. A great account executive asks questions. And gets answers.

In fact, a great account executive isn’t afraid to ask too many questions. Get as much information as you possibly can. Exhaust the client with questions. Press her to answer questions she doesn’t have answers for. If you can’t think of any piercing questions, try the basic who/what/when/where/why questions. Make them drive you from their offices, still asking questions as you retreat.

Make sure when you hand off an assignment to the creative department that a few days later or a month later, the client won’t suddenly remember something he forgot back when we started; some small fact that can change everything … it’s a huge drain on productivity. Yours and ours. (Now I know things change and we’ve proven our resilience time and time again to respond. But it’s a real shame when a small fact got overlooked going in.)

  1. A great account executive is always thinking ahead.

Think harder than the client does. Think of things the client didn’t think of. What is the client really asking for? What is the client forgetting? Figure out what lies at the bottom of the request. What insight can you identify that will help us do our job better, smarter, with less wheel spinning. Thinking of more questions, coming up with more answers.

  1. A great account executive resists talking execution.

Don’t anticipate the creative. Don’t write job starters that include what you think the ad ought to be. And resist the temptation to tell us what the client thinks the ad should be … even when he’s gone to great lengths to tell you.

Doing what the client wants is a trap. Anyone can execute what the client wants. Anyone can interpret the client’s idea. What we have that they don’t have is independent thinking. Our greatest asset is our third party status. It is nearly impossible for a client to think like her own consumer. It is our mandate to do so. Our responsibility is to come at a problem from a perspective they rarely have and arrive at a conclusion they may overlook.

If we are always put in the position of doing what they want, then they don’t need us. They don’t need our thinking. All they want from us then is our handiwork.

Now one could easily argue that the agency business has changed. And it has. Maybe what I’ve described is outdated and clients don’t need the old style agency anymore. Maybe we have to be a job shop that takes orders, never disagrees, takes assignments and directions at face value.

I’ll argue however, that such thinking is only short term. You won’t build a career or become this great account executive doing word for word what the client dictates.

The ad business finds buzzwords thrilling: “brand” and “integration” come to mind. The big buzz-phrase in advertising today is relationship marketing or customer relationship management. Advertisers want relationships with their customers. And you know what? Clients want relationships with their agencies too.

Relationships based on order-taking are doomed to be short-lived. Relationships built on dialogue, on give-and-take, on surprise and delivery of the unexpected endure. Maintaining a relationship will be tough at times, like a marriage. But the more they test each other, the more struggles they survive, the stronger and more durable the relationship.

It’s easy for clients to find someone to do their layouts for them. It’s hard to find someone who will do their thinking for them.

We want to do the thinking. How can you affect that? (See Deadly Virtue Number Two.)

Always be thinking about what your client is asking for. Say, “OK, I understand what you’re asking for. I understand that you want to do a direct mail piece to your standing email list, can you tell me your rationale? Not because you want to argue about it, but just because you want to understand it. And you want to double check the logic.

This doesn’t mean that you can’t have an idea. Good ideas come from anywhere. This idea though, does not belong in the job starter or the strategy document. It belongs in a face-to-face discussion with the creatives.

  1. A great account executive believes in the work.

Conviction sells. If you don’t believe in it, talk it over with the creatives. Either find a way to get on board, or convince us we’re wrong. If you still don’t believe, don’t present. Let someone who does believe do it. Clients can sense waffling a mile away.

  1. A great account executive is never surprised when creatives argue for the work.

In spite of all the myths of chaotic, irrational behavior, creative folks are actually very logical. We’ll ask the questions you missed … unless you were proficient in living up to Virtue Number 1. And if we don’t have the answer we’ll make an assumption or we’ll dig up some answer of our own. Generally we have very good reasons for what we propose. We’re not perfect. But we’re almost always passionate.

We invest a great deal of ourselves in our work. But in short order, we learn when to let go. We can take criticism …when it is soundly reasoned. “I don’t like it” is not input or a reason or valid criticism. Your response should always be: This won’t work, because … We should be able to counter with: “This will work, because …”

  1. A great account executive has a portfolio, just like creatives do.

Always ask yourself the same question of the work we creatives ask ourselves: Would I be proud to put this in my book? (to go further here would require a separate session … at issue here is what is “great work?”)

  1. A great account executive is also a great consumer.

By my way of thinking, that’s why we’re called an agency. We are agents who think and talk and act on the consumers’ behalf. We represent the consumer at the brand conference table. So when you write a strategy, when you consider an execution, when you confer with the client, try to be a consumer first. Take off your account management hat and ask yourself which ads you like, which ads you remember, which ads move you. You don’t need a PhD in marketing to answer those questions.

You are already an expert, you are an American consumer. (We invented consumption! — especially the conspicuous kind — a claim I’m not always proud to make.) Use your skills honed over decades of advertising bombardment.

Yes, you can ask all those textbook questions too, but somewhere before you make your final call on an idea, be sure you know how you would have responded as an ordinary consumer. Of course, today’s consumer is no ordinary creature. He or she is skeptical and incisive and a curious blend of the rational and the emotional. They are inundated with advertising and information everyday and have very sensitive BS meters. They are on their toes, which means we have to conjure feats of levitation in order to stay ahead of them.