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How to Think Defensively

In 1974, on my first day in advertising at Doyle Dane Bernbach, the Management Supervisor (who is now Chairman of Chanel) on my account (S.O.S. Soap Pads) called me into his office.  He said, “Here’s the most important thing you need to know about being an account executive – you can’t make points for doing your job well, you can only lose points for screwing up.”

It took me a while to get over the initial shock of this rather jolting introduction into account management.  But, I came to realize that what he was saying was that it was my responsibility to make sure that everything ran smoothly so the client could be focused on the positive things that the agency was bringing to the relationship, and not get distracted by mistakes and errors.

I took the lesson to heart and re-defined his remarks to a focus on what I called “thinking defensively”. In a nutshell, what this means is to assume that anything could go wrong, and to have a back-up plan to deal with it.

Thinking defensively is really an attitude more than anything else. And in your role of account manager, it can manifest itself in innumerable ways. But here are a bunch of examples to illustrate what I mean.

• If you’re traveling to the client by plane, have a contingency travel plan in case the flight gets delayed /cancelled or the car doesn’t show up.  

• Assume that the A/V equipment won’t work and the tape/CD will be faulty.  Have back ups.

• Provide your team with the latest information about the client’s business category trends, competitive strategy just in case they get asked about it by the client in a meeting.

• Bring everything you might possibly need to a client meeting (past work, copies of the strategy, media plan, last conference reports, etc.) just in case it might be needed.

• Have everyone’s phone numbers (home, cell, office) handy in case you need to reach someone unexpectedly.

• Know how the client’s stock is doing and what’s going on in the category.  It will always give you something to talk about with the client during conversation lulls or pregnant pauses.

• For internal meetings, make sure everyone attending knows the agenda, where the meeting is, who will be there and how long it will last.

I think you get the picture.


Bruce Kelley

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