Discovering Creative Account Leadership

January 2022
By Katie Funk

I decided I wanted to work in advertising early in my college career. While I was taking my first advertising classes at the School of Journalism at the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities, I hustled the agencies in Minneapolis to learn more about what it meant to have a job in advertising. I met with all sorts of people at many different agencies to learn about all the positions within an agency. It was pretty clear where my place was. Being creative on cue – is never going to happen. Buried in spreadsheets and negotiating media contracts – probably not. Being able to be a part of every touchpoint within the creative process while being able to make things happen with clients – Yep! Sounded right to me. 

I went headfirst into Account Management. I took all the college classes, chose my mentors, and went to all the mixers. Yet all that failed to teach me was what a complex discipline it actually was. 

I realized I didn’t know what Account Management actually does or how I would describe what I did. Lucky for me, Mad Men came out right when I started out. So, when friends and family were like, “So what do you do??” I could reference Mad Men and say, “I’m like Pete Campbell but nicer – and also, things have changed!”. But then I’d always ask myself if they have. I’ve also learned I’ll never be that kind of Account person. I’m not always a people pleaser.

There tends to be a stigma with Account Management. We’re “the suits” the “Yes! Men (or women). Where creative goes to die. 

As a young Account person, I struggled with that. I was surrounded by some of the most brilliant, creative people I’ve ever been around. I saw the passion for what they created and wanted everyone else around me to be as excited about it. I just didn’t know what to do with that. I felt I was put in this “Account Management” box where it was my responsibility to make sure the logo was used correctly, and the client was nodding their head. That was it. But it wasn’t.

It wasn’t until a few years into my career that I started hearing about this “Creative Account Leadership” course that a Group Account Director that I had previously worked with taught.

I've kept one ear open whenever people talked about it. Unfortunately, I was a little too old and too poor to take the class. But I was lucky enough that Jeff Graham put out an article a few years about this topic. And once I read this, it all just clicked—years of trying to figure out why I didn’t fit, why I was frustrated. I wasn’t just an Account person. I was a Creative Account Leader.

Jeff Graham’s article states that “creative is a verb.” It is not just a single discipline and should be thought of in every step. He’s tasked Account people to get creative every step of the way.

He developed a manifesto with five key ways to bring creativity to Account Leadership.

  • Create conditions that make brave work possible. Allow for those “big ideas” to be created by thinking ahead to allow for it.
  • Solve, don’t sell. We should be active listeners. People that bring the right team together to solve what is needed.
  • Contribute. Bring Ideas. Don’t be indispensable. Creative Account Leaders contribute. They have their own ideas based on the clients’ business and their own knowledge. You know more about the client than anyone else in the agency, so you know your ideas are worthwhile.
  • Momentum is currency. Own it. There is a “maker” mindset where the Account leaders can make things happen. They run when they can run to get it done.
  • Bring infectious optimism in the face of cynicism. True account leaders care! They want to make things happen. Each job is a new job, and the allure of bringing it to life gets this Account leader going each day.

Even without knowing it, I’ve always cared more about solving problems and creating great work than making people happy. I still remember sitting with the creative teams presenting their ideas with passion, and seeing how they fit the brief. It’s what kept me going, even if that meant learning which brand of gummy bears made everyone happy and bringing them during those late nights before a big meeting. 

While Jeff is trying to shift this discipline, some feel that the job is dead. 

If it isn’t apparent enough, I don’t think this job is dead. This job is sorely underestimated on a daily basis. As Jeff says, “Creative Account people, care. They care a lot.”

But if that quote doesn’t do it for you. Take it from a creative. Luke Sullivan, who said in ‘Hey Whipple, Squeeze This,’ – “The good ones have the soul of a creative person.” 

A job that continually has articles written about is a role that is still needed. I’ve never been more excited about the potential for the Account team.