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Suits – Order takers or creative catalysts?

The panel from left to right:

Rory Sutherland, Vice Chairman Ogilvy Group UK, Piyush Pandey, Executive Chairman and Creative Director, Ogilvy & Mather India and South Asia, David Mayo, President, Asean, Ogilvy & Mather Asia Pacific, Chris Mumford, SVP & Group Managing Director, The Martin Agency, Richmond VA,Christopher Palengat, EVP, Saatchi & Saatchi Fallon Group

Recently, Cannes witnessed its first  DO Debates. The dynamic panel explored whether account management is dying or thriving? Will it lead the next wave of agency entrepreneurialism?

The debate gave us plenty to think about. ”It’s not just about a gin and tonic relationship. It’s about what the client needs not what he wants,” expressed Chris Palengat.

Rory Sutherland compared great ‘suits’ to Brian Epstein discovering the Beatles, “spotting something when no-one else does.”

David Mayo took on the mantle of a moderator and fielded a number of provoking questions to the panel, including whether the account man is just the fall guy for creative failure, whether his prime role is more than a salesman, the changing nature of the business today and what the future holds for account management.

Cannes DO Debates transcript

David Mayo: Good morning, it’s day three of Cannes Lions 2012 and you’ve joined us at the Eden hotel here behind the Croisette at Cannes, The subject of our debate today, Is the suit – order taker or creative catalyst? Stuffed shirt or super suit? The world’s been very kind to several people inside the advertising industry over time. The creatives in the 40s and 50s were immortalized by the likes of Bill Bernback and David Ogilvy. The planners had their time in the 1960s and 1970s and by the 1980s the suits undid everything by being likened to estate agents and car salesmen. This debate came about through one simple article. It was written by Chris Mumford in March and published in Ad Age. It was  about a concept that he had bought up called the T-shaped suit, Chris can you tell us about the genesis of that please?
Chris Mumford: It was really a call to arms, I watched as account people have been pushed down, the creative people are lionized, planners became very important to our clients and in this new age I saw it as a real opportunity for account people to step up.
David Mayo: I sensed emotion in there, I sensed anger almost.
Chris Mumford: Because I’m not seeing it happen. I want to see account people stop defining themselves as relationship managers and people that have a beer at the pub with their clients and start really connecting the ideas that we develop with business problems.
David Mayo: You say you want to build the relationship between the agency and the client, or is there a relationship somewhere else that they are challenged with building?
Chris Palengat: I think the relationship absolutely has to be built within the constituent parties within the company that are most likely to create the best outcome for the client, or they need to understand how a relationship –not a gin
and tonic one- (although there is no problem with a gin and tonic relationship, you want both) where they actually understand what the client needs not what the client wants. I’m afraid too much of account management is concerned with what the client wants.
Piyush Pandey: I come from a very different world where I don’t think the suits are either order takers or catalysts, because by sheer definition a catalyst “ceases to exist” after the action and in my part of the world the superstar suits are part of the process of energizing their part of the chemical reaction that takes place and they are part of the celebration that follows. So. I definitely think that the ideal suit would be a part of the short passes we make rather than the long passes if you keep standing near the goal posts and half the time you are offside. So I think that it’s the constant interaction that makes a good business player and a great promoter.
David Mayo: The account manager is being squeezed isn’t he?
Chris Mumford: To build on that last point I think it’s interesting to talk about the process because of the kind of work that we’re doing now compared to the kind of work we did ten years ago. The development of our print campaign or our television ads. In the old days you launch it, you get it done and then you move on to the next thing you’re doing and you watch how great it does and what awards it wins. Now the kind of work we’re doing with new technology
is you build it, you launch it, you re-launch it, you optimize it, you keep making it better and it never ever ends, so not only does the account manager need to be involved with the whole thing but bringing the client along with that kind of
process is a new thing for all of us.
Chris Palengat: I think the role that’s needed today I would call something like a strategic generalist. And I think they need to be impresarios or entrepreneurs. I prefer impresarios as being entrepreneurial within a group or holding company context is a little bit of a struggle. If you say impresario or producer I think that’s an easier place to go. I say strategic generalist because it isn’t a case of I know they’ll be taking this order from a client and then giving the order to a creative to make into a telly ad. We know now that this isn’t going to be the answer. There’s going to be a myriad of ways of answering this question. And by the way, it should always be a question of 365 days of answers. None of these military terms we use like “campaign” and “executions” and the like. So I’m thinking about senior account people the ones who are going to be successful I think are the ones that are going to be more inclined to be what we would have called planners in the old days.
David Mayo: If they’re going to be strategic do we need to have planners?
Rory Sutherland: Everyone should be sitting on the planning beach, and I think that the T shaped ideal applies to everyone, I think that you want T-shaped planners and you want T-shaped creatives who have an area of deep knowledge and specialism but who also understand how different things fuse together and you understand those things well enough to know when you need someone else to help you. So the T-shaped model I think applies everywhere. It is worth remembering that actually there is one respect in which the promotion of great creative work suits are more important then creative. If you have a great brief and basically you don’t come up with anything great as a creative it is obvious and everyone knows it, it is a visible failure. If you fail to spot potential it’s an invisible failure. It’s worth remembering that without Brian Epstein we would not have the Beatles. He took a friend of his that knew far more about the music industry and music then he did. He was running a chain of record shops in Manchester at the time, He took his friend to see them play and afterwards he said “what did you think?”, he said “I thought they were shit” and Brian Epstein said “so did I”, but I think there’s something there.” And that ability to spot something that no one else does is the most vital thing in producing great work. A failure of creativity once the brief’s written – and it’s a good brief- is visible and detected and punished and we suffer in terms of peer group approval and everything else. But the failure to spot something doesn’t get you into trouble, so the suit can survive for 5 to 6 years effectively burying their failures.
Chris Mumford: We live in an industry that moves on very fast and so the 15/20 year client relationships you don’t see very many of any more. So in my view the job of being an opportunist to see the business opportunity, to find the business opportunity as a way to not only grow your own business but grow the clients business. Or find some business impact on behalf of the client, that’s the fun part of the job. I’d rather be doing that day to day then standing on a stage showing the latest flashiest campaign that’s been put together. I’d rather see businesses grow. And I think that’s a bit of the call to arms where the opportunity is for account managers in this new world, because we should move to focus on building and growing long lasting client relationships where we are true partners.
Chris Palengat: There is one position in an old 17th or 18th century ship that used to exist and I wonder what that position is in an agency today. So, you have the Captain, some runners and some cooks and all the rest of it, and in the old days you used to have someone in the crows nest. I don’t know who’s in the crows nest of an agency today. And I think that having someone in the crows nest is rather important- because I don’t think most people in an agency know what’s coming in 3 months never mind in three years. And I think that one of the greatest challenges in agencies is trying to not work out how I can get to the puck where the puck is now, but where the puck is going to be and how can I get there.
Chris Mumford: I think clients sometimes don’t know exactly what they need and they have been ok with basically having a project manager kind of role assisting them in getting stuff done. But they don’t look to us like they should and we don’t ask them to look to us to sit in the crows’ nest.
David Mayo: How does a client delineate between being told what they need and what you need as a creative industry?
Chris Palengat: I feel uncomfortable about selling because selling implies the friction and the lack of desire to buy from the other end. I don’t think that’s the case, I don’t think clients are being sold strategies by McKinsey. I don’t think McKinsey thinks, we have to go and sell this new strategy to the client. I think what they do is say we understand your business we understand your problems but we believe this is the solution.
Rory Sutherland: My view is informed by my hobby of doing crosswords. The interesting way to solve crosswords is that there is no one order that you do it, sometimes the clue leads to the word, sometimes you think of the word and
then back form it to the clue. So the distinction between post-rationalization and pre-rationalization if you solve a crossword isn’t there. There are about three different ways in which you come up with the answer. So working closely as a team is a process that can go in both directions.
David Mayo: There’s been an allergic reaction from Chris on the notion of sales. How do you get clients to cross the sign outs between safe work and work that appears and wins at Cannes without a little bit of salesmanship in there?
Piyush Pandey: I don’t think you require salesmanship I completely agree with Chris on that. Trust comes with time. Trust comes with you sticking your neck out proving yourself to be correct. Next time the chances are the person
wants to play the game a little more. I don’t think you can walk up to a client and say “trust me” but you can take them through the process saying if we did this, in my opinion it would take you a little further. You do it one client and some one sees the results, next 5 more clients want to do it. I think there is belief, faith and perseverance.
David Mayo: But terrifyingly, Rory was talking a moment ago about how you can be a bad suit for 5/6 years.
Piyush Pandey: I want to add to that, that you can be a bad creative person for 10 years also, and hide in the system. I don’t think we should point fingers at suits, there are bad suits and there are good suits just as there are good creatives and bad creatives.
Rory Sutherland: Actually a wise man makes more opportunities then he finds, going to a client with something they hadn’t even thought of and never been briefed on at all, is the single most valuable thing you can do.
David Mayo: This has been the DO Debate on the road I’d like you to thank our
panel today, and thank you very much from Cannes 2012.

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