Suits vs Creatives: a battle that has raged since Brylcreem and typewriters peppered the agency landscape. On one side, “Suits”—business types who know every account by the numbers and remember every client’s birthday, favorite food and dog’s name. On the other side, “Creatives”—artsy folk who hate being called artsy, who can tell Arial from Helvetica at a glance and who, for some reason, have a strong opinion about drop shadows. I am the latter. And in my almost 20 years in the business, I’ve learned some great lessons on relationships with members of the other side of the office.
The Client Hates Blue
“Don’t use blue. The client hates blue.” Every art director or graphic designer has been issued a seemingly arbitrary edict like this by someone in accounts. Maybe it was “don’t use curly-haired models,” or “never mention peaches in any printed material.” What? I’m supposed to disregard an entire hue, hair texture or fruit? That offends my sensibilities as an artist! I didn’t spend five years at Appalachian State just to have some suit help me with my color palette!
We tend to get scrappy when we’re told how to create. So what do we do? With ego engorged we set about fighting for the rights of curly-haired models as if it’s a personal cause. We research and find articles supporting our belief that the sight of peaches makes millennials involuntarily spend money on whichever product or service we choose. Then we state our points in a boldly articulated email and fire it off to the offending party (making sure to BCC our friends in the creative department) and sit back and wait for all to bow to our expertise.
It happens. I’ve done it. But I don’t recommend it. Oh, sure, for about 30 minutes you feel like Don Draper. Like you’ve just asserted yourself for a noble cause. But then… the inevitable reality check. The moment that makes you realize you’re not Don Draper. You’re not even Dick Whitman. An email reply from your AE explaining that the client’s main competitor uses blue. That a curly-haired model is already being used in the same campaign and that two curlies could be confusing. That the market in which you’re trying to place that ad with a glamor shot of a peach is the Cumquat Capital of the World, and cumquat folks and peach folks don’t get along. Sometimes there’s a good reason for a request that sounds irrational.
Communication issues between suits and creatives can be frustrating, but they’re not real problems. They’re perceived problems. And struggling against a perceived problem is like walking into a spider web. No one but you knows what has you writhing so spastically. You’re all alone in it, arms flailing, frantically trying to peel invisible threads from your face, not sure if you should back up or go forward to escape it. You look crazy.
Intra-office communication struggles can be avoided when we zoom out a bit and take a look at the big picture. Anyone can get caught in the minutia, but when creatives and suits are both focused on what the client needs, communication between the departments works. If they’re both focused on each other, no one is thinking about the client.
Protect the Egg
In my experience, the most natural response to being told we have to correct course on a project is to fight about it, to explain why it shouldn’t be changed from the way we have it imagined. People in creative jobs, no matter our title, tend to nest in our ideas. We build them around ourselves. It’s comfortable, it fits us perfectly and every fiber is handpicked. The last thing we want to hear is that our ideas are wrong. Defending what we’ve created becomes our default mode, because it protects us from disruption. The problem with this, of course, is that we’ve built around ourselves instead of our client’s objectives. The mother bird is protected, but the egg is not.
I learned a lot about protecting eggs when I was self-employed. Nothing changed the way I look at account management like actually having to manage accounts. Instead of anger, I now feel empathy when an AE tells me to avoid blue at all costs. I know the white-hot shame of having to look into a client’s face and say, “I’m sorry I got your brand wrong that you spent a buhzillion dollars creating.” When the option of fighting about creative problems is removed from the table, creative solutions to problems are all that is left.
Suits and creatives are not made of different material, even though sometimes it seems we are. Fostering relationships between departments is way easier than some make it seem. Self-employment has allowed me to see the inner workings of a lot of creative businesses, and the ones that are easiest to work for are the ones where the departments are encouraged to integrate. Believe it or not, I’ve worked at places where the AEs were upstairs, the creatives were downstairs and they were literally told not to hang out on the other team’s floor. Insanity. This isn’t The Outsiders and we aren’t the Greasers and the Socials. Common areas are where we get good at common courtesy and “hey, dude, you got some Lean Pockets™ juice on your tie” is a bonding moment.
Also, with more integration comes more ownership of ideas. If everyone is on the same page and informed from the earliest stages of a project, concepts will align better with budgets. This way, no one gets surprised when the full-size, inflatable drone in the shape of King Kong holding the client’s logo in his fist doesn’t fly.
When both parties want the same outcome, there is no problem. There will always be countless opportunities for miscommunication leading to frustration. But they don’t have to turn into a spider web in the face. Slow down. Take a beat. Feel free to laugh about strange requests, because life is funny. But don’t fight the spider web, because no one wants to stand next to that guy.