Back in the day, creatives considered account people as fedora-wearing, walking expense accounts; account people saw creative people as loping budget busters. And tension between the account and creative side of ad agencies simmered hot enough to warrant creative vs. account softball tournaments. Fast-forward out of the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, and both softball and boxing gloves are off. Shrinking budgets and competition have leveled the playing field. Now everyone needs to be on the same team. And thinking creatively and strategically.
Apply "what if" thinking
To be successful, agencies can be neither creative-driven nor account-driven. Instead, agencies need to be possibility-driven.
That means applying what-if thinking to client work. It seems like smart brainstorming belongs in the creative department. But if your account people are the first eyes, minds and ears on the client scene, they get the earliest crack at shaping the work at a high level. Thinking about client work in terms of possibilities is very creative work, and the account side has to own it too.
Before a project manager assigns a deadline, scopes a project or considers the budget, a level of creative strategy happens. This strategy happens before the creative team gets a green light. Account may have invented a secret creative-before-the-creative space, but the practice of what-if thinking is open to everyone: account, strategy, creative and clients too.
If you imagine your headspace as real estate, what-if thinking is an empty apartment, ripe to be furnished with ideas. Start with a clear space before realities like budgets and timelines form walls. The ideas that emerge could help you encourage the client to think bigger and grow the business. Even if the ideas are outrageous, you’re showing clients that you are proactively thinking about possibilities for their business. Oftentimes, your vision inspires theirs.
Champion your clients' needs
Merging curiosity with research gives you the intelligence and insight to have meaningful conversations with your client. Read the trade journals your client reads. Find out what matters most to your client. Share insights about your client’s industry and business trends before they do. Inside agency walls, act as your client’s advocate and partner. Put yourself in the client’s shoes.
Hear what's not being said
Get immersed in what clients are saying—and not saying. Success is not about listening for the order, it’s about producing a product or service that does the job and delights the client. Sometimes there isn’t a clear idea of what is needed or what will work. That’s when the power of your perspective shines. You are on the outside looking in, where you most likely get the clearest view of opportunities no one else sees.
Never do the same thing twice
Congratulations! You and your team just crushed a big project. The results were better than expected, and the client is thrilled. Instead of laurel-resting, return to the secret what-if creative space and consider: What can we do differently next time? How can we make this better? Try to avoid thinking in terms of outperforming yourself. Instead, how can you expand on what worked and rework what didn’t? That way, you’re not pumping up the scope of the project, but refining what you’ve learned.
Encouraging what-if thinking across creative, account, strategy, project management and executive teams works for us time and again. We are organized in client and functional teams inside our agency, but we work collaboratively—not in silos.
That’s not to say we wouldn’t take each other on in a softball game or wear fedoras. And we might just play softball while wearing fedoras.