Most Americans can’t get their heads around cricket.
In return, like many British people, I’ve never managed to get my head around American football (NFL).
However, I do like one aspect of that otherwise arcane game.
I like the bit where one side is attacking (offence) and the defending side does everything it can to mangle (sack) the attacking quarterback.
In return a whole bunch of guys from the attacking team do everything they can to block the defenders and stop them sacking the quarterback.
In other words the offence is defending whilst attacking.
No wonder we struggle to get our heads around it.
Cue slightly tortured analogy between account management and NFL-style defending whilst you’re attacking.
Imagine that the quarterback is your agency, and the ball is an amazing new idea.
You want to score a touchdown by getting that idea approved, produced and published.
And your job as account manager is to take out (figuratively) anyone or anything that might stop that happening.
This requires some special character traits. Character traits that can seem to be contradictory at face value.
Firstly you need to be paranoid.
You need a vivid imagination for all the things that could possibly go wrong.
As he or she gains experience, a naturally gifted account manager’s ability to envision multiple worst-case scenarios will plumb unprecedented depths of pessimism.
But, in true NFL defending-whilst-attacking style, each obstacle – perceived or real – will be anticipated, pre-empted, obliterated.
Secondly, you need an unshaking self-belief, both in your own and in your agency’s ability to pull rabbits out of hats and to generally make things happen.
A great account manager will simultaneously have a glass half empty and a glass half full outlook on a project.
Defending whilst attacking.
I remember the great John Bartle once saying to me at the height of a crisis on the Phileas Fogg account (media monies committed, airdate looming, scripts rejected, broadcast clearance issues, tight budget), “You’ll sort this. Good agencies always do. The alternative is unthinkable.”
A potent combination of reassurance and challenge that I’ve borrowed and re-used on account managers a couple of times in my career since then.
(And we did sort it. Agencies have a habit of moving mountains.)
So what’s this pain management thing about then?
Pain, for the purposes of this post, is when, despite your best efforts, things have not gone entirely to plan and you and/or the agency is in the firing line for some client grief.
You haven’t successfully defended whilst attacking and the quarterback is going to take a hit.
Maybe the script that was sold in at 30” is actually only going to work at 40”. Maybe this only dawns on the team when they start to see directors’ treatments and the airtime is already planned and committed at the shorter length.
Maybe the idea that your client’s boss’s boss is sold on can’t be delivered after all for the available budget.
Maybe your script has hit an unforeseen and insurmountable broadcast clearance issue a week before the marketing director is due to present it at the sales conference.
Maybe your creative team and/or your creative director are steadfastly failing or refusing to “get” what it will take to crack this brief to the satisfaction of the client, and you’re going to miss the concept approval deadline, thereby screwing up the rest of the process and undermining client confidence.
Sometimes pain is inevitable.
In my experience there are only two things to remember about pain, once you’ve exhausted all options to avoid it.
Firstly, if at all possible, keep the pain internal. Take any shit you have to within the agency to get the issue sorted. Accept that your reputation within the agency might be dented. Accept that you’re going to be heavily in debt in terms of favours. But take the pain internally if you can. Make like the proverbial swan. Paddling like buggery and being bitten by razor-toothed pike under the water, but a picture of serenity above it.
Secondly, if you absolutely positively definitely have to share pain with your client, do so as soon as you possibly can.
That kind of pain only gets (much) worse with time. It festers and the consequences get more severe.
That should be obvious.
But I’ve seen several otherwise excellent account managers fail to rise to this challenge.
They know that they have to make that horrible call.
But they put it off.
They prioritise other tasks on their to-do list.
They tell themselves that they’ll do it after lunch.
But then allow themselves to get sucked into other stuff.
And before you know it another valuable (priceless) day has gone by.
Another day of blissful ignorance for the client.
Classic ostrich stuff that makes the problem worse and leaves the agency with less time to work with the client to solve it.
Take it early. Take the hit. Dust yourself down. And make the next play a wiser, more experienced, more determined defender-whilst-attacker.
42, 23, 37, hut!
Or something like that.