Account executives in the advertising industry are known as the “Suits”. The advertising industry created a sexy reputation for itself in the early 1950s where advertising executives on Madison Avenue would wear dapper suits because of the success they experienced in the golden age of advertising.
Obviously a lot has changed since- we are in the year 2014 but the advertising industry is still largely associated with creativity, fun, and glamour. Is this really the case?
What you actually do
As the contact person or bridge to the client, you need to build rapport and be able to express what they want to achieve. You will realize that in a mid-large sized advertising agency, Suits will normally be assigned to an account and service the clients over a period of time. The reason for this is simple: better relationships and better rapport with clients leads to open conversations and fosters a complete understanding of the account.
Your workflow as an ad executive
When you start a campaign, you will need to engage your strategic planners or if it’s a simple campaign, start writing briefs for the creative teams to work on. Now comes your ability to work with a diverse group of people. If you have a deadline coming up, but your brief comes in late- how will you get your job done? Do you have a good relationship with your traffic* executives? Have you built a name for yourself that you can walk into the creative director’s office to change an artwork that you know is not what your client is looking for? Answering these questions becomes part of your job.
(*Traffic executives police the job briefs that comes in and out between the Suits and the creative team to maximise manpower and match jobs correctly with the strengths of the creative team. )
Your work flow in a simple campaign excluding the strategic planning team would be as follow:
Sleeping in on a typical day as an ad executive
Because many ad executives I know work late, they tend to saunter in the office around 9am-10am. However, in certain cultures like Japan, they start as early as 8am or whenever their clients start so that they can speak to them the same time they are in the office.
You will likely start your day looking at the outstanding artwork that needs to be sent to your client and also whether there is any artwork heading to production to be submitted to go live.
If no client meetings are arranged, you will be having several meetings with the creative team and possibly explain your rationale to making any suggested changes to the artwork. After which, you will need to chase for the digital artwork to be sent to your client for comments or changes.
On other days, you may be roped into a team known as the pitch team- this is when the agency is trying to win new business. You will be working on the prospective clients’ brief and develop an initial pitch idea to be presented with the creative team. Pitches are great for exposure because at the end of the day, if you don’t win accounts, you have no campaign to work on!
Social aspects of the job
Depending on the size of the agency you are working in, the role of an account executive varies from a “one man show” to being the contact person for the client, complemented with other teams. You will work with a variety of people and this diagram below illustrates the potential contact points you will interact with.
Culture at ad agencies
Have you heard of tyrants in the advertising industry? Sure you have. I have heard of stories where senior directors (we call them SAD; Senior Account Director) walk across a lying body of their Account Executive who worked too long and have since fainted. Depending on the size and culture of the agency, because of the deadline dominated processes, it creates a highly pressured workforce. It’s not uncommon to hear your colleagues argue over creative differences and also why a particular campaign is delayed. Nearing a deadline, if your artwork is not completed, except to stay up even up to midnight!
It can be a very demanding industry but no matter how many arguments or conflicts of opinions you may have, if you are able to do your job well, do the right thing, no one will take it personally and understand that it’s part of the process in trying to get the best work done.
The drinking and smoking culture is relatively strong. It’s not uncommon to walk past an advertising agency seeing a chain of people smoking while waiting for client emails. Due to the creative environment, even if you’re not an art director, Suits are no longer in “suits” unless of course they service clients who are very formal (i.e. banking clients).
Realism - the good and bad about the being in an ad agency
When you’re starting out in your career, it can be fascinating receiving free gifts (typically from retail and fast moving consumer goods clients) and have privileged access to events that are part of your clients' campaigns. What is most satisfying though is seeing the work you put in come together and go live. Since you work relatively long hours, there’s an unbreakable bond you have with your colleagues that make the culture such an intimate one. Friendships forged here hold a special meaning when you’ve been through tough deadlines and yet made it out alive.
For those working on regional accounts, travelling to various locations to supervise and deliver results that make your client happy forms part of the interesting bits of the role.
Working late is a given, but when campaigns are slow, you have flexible time. Leaving for home after a meeting that ended at 4pm if there is nothing urgent is not unusual (unless you have a different type of boss). All in all, the skills you develop from working in a high-pressured environment and learning how to work with different people will help you in all aspects of your life.
For the number of hours you have to put into this job, the pay isn’t great. Many people in the industry know that you have to “pay your dues” and work your way up to be comfortable with your salary. Apart from the pay, you have to be extremely patient with everyone; from your client to your colleagues who can sometimes feel like they’re playing the opposite field.
Since this is also a role where a good relationship with your client is crucial, understanding and being able to accommodate to your clients while focusing on the required tasks at hand is a balancing act that needs to be managed. As a personal example, I once had to convince my client that the black ribbon on an advertisement was really black and it was black enough, and that's after I've changed the size of the ribbons 10 times. Tell that to any suit and they will likely have a similar experience.
Advice for those considering becoming an ad executive
Take the initiative
You will need to take initiative whenever possible because when you first start out, it is not easy to find a mentor or coach. Instead, it's necessary to observe how things are done and adapt quickly. It’s a fast paced environment and when married with a bunch of high strung ad executives pushing deadlines, you’ll be certain tempers and harsh words are exchanged often. Don’t be alarmed and you will need to steel yourself to brush it off, move on, and don’t take it personally.
Have the desire to create beautiful things
You will need the desire to create beautiful things, because you are after all in advertising of which is meant to produce campaigns that are aspirational or able to influence a change in behaviour.
Be patient in climbing
Many account executives are impatient to move up the ranks resulting in many career changes among the ranks. However, one wise and experienced SAD (senior account director) once cautioned that as with many jobs out there, if you move up too quickly, you are not exposed sufficiently to make enough mistakes, learn enough to manage various client situations, and you may end up hurting your own career when you cannot deliver at a more senior position.
Here’s a typical progression for a suit. Depending on the size of the agency, the bigger it is, the more levels and structures there will be. For a mid-sized multinational agency, you can expect to stay in a role about 1-2 years before moving onward to your next role. Obviously this will vary with individuals and agency.
- Account Executive
- Senior Account Executive
- Account Manager
- Senior Account Manager
- Account Director
- Senior Account Director
- Group Account Director
- Senior Group Account Director
- General manager/ Managing Director
Education and training
Most people who enter this industry are trained in the marketing and communications discipline. However, because this industry services a variety of companies, it is still possible to join this industry even if you are trained in another discipline. You do need however, to demonstrate sufficient knowledge in the industry.
Suits are no longer donned but advertising is here to stay, and it's bigger than ever. If you are energetic and have the desire to create beautiful things that change behaviour with a team of people, this might just be the occupation for you.