‘That’s how I got to run an agency’: Creative execs on how business smarts helped build their careers

In my last column we talked about the line that divides the agency world between “suits” who run the business and the creatives who solve clients’ toughest business problems. That line is rapidly disappearing: Creative leaders may get into the business to make cool shit, but to stay there they need to know how to keep the agency’s lights on.

I sat down with Matt Calos, partner and global managing director at Your Majesty in New York and Matthew Eberhart, a longtime agency executive now vice president and creative director at Bloomingdales. We talked about how business smarts have helped them to build teams and run businesses. Here’s what they had to say about clients, team morale and of importance finance in growing an agency career.

Once upon a time, creatives were super-siloed from the people running business operations. Why is that changing?

Eberhart: Presently, the lines between creative, marketing, PR, product, and so on constantly overlap. Sometimes you have the opportunity to simply develop brand-building tools, but other times it’s about brand building, demand-driving millennial acquisition, and key-category value propositions in terms of digital, social, in-store, and more traditional means all at once.

These are complex goals that require people to juggle a lot of different ideas and stretch the definition of what “creative” actually is. Is it a photo shoot? Is it a Reddit campaign? Is it a brand mash-up?

Does pushing a creative to understand the business-side have implications for morale?

Calos: The motivation of a creative is to work on an interesting and challenging project. They want clients that are going to provide them that type of work, and they want to work at a healthy, successful business. All three of those are tied together in terms of morale.

As managers, we have to keep people informed about the types of new business coming in and get them excited about how that fits into the overall structure of what we’re doing. That gets everyone involved, motivated and challenged.

Eberhart: I’lI always tell my team that they should feel proud of anything they produce. So they tend to ask a lot of questions up front to dig deep into agency business goals. Then they can go to work trying to solve some a really interesting challenge–How can I create something that the client loves and I love, too.

What about spending time directly with clients? How handy should creatives be at account management?

Calos: I’d been with an agency for 10 years before I got to do that. I’d had no real exposure to the budgeting process or establishing goals with clients. I don’t think a lot of people in the creative group have any understanding of what a marketing client does. If you ask them they would say they sit on the phone with us and review creative all day.

I could’ve been a lot more helpful to my clients if I had greater exposure into their internal jobs. I didn’t understand what their challenges were.

So business knowledge is now key to delivering even on your core competencies. But if you’re schooled in creative, where do you get that info?

Calos: Well, I’ve done a few big agencies in my career. I worked at one large global agency where the creative floor was basically locked. Anyone in any other group was not allowed on this floor. It was a very divisive environment.

In those big agencies, you need to find the individuals that can help you get the answers you want answers. The creative personnel asking about finance, they’re not going to go to the CFO. They’re more likely to go to a counselor to answer that over time. Working with your peer level team is certainly one path to it.

Should all creatives understand finance?

Calos: That’s how I got to run an agency like this… I started my career in a small business where I got to touch everything. That was exhausting, but if you want to run an agency in the future, you need to do some general management stuff. Even if bookkeeping is boring at some point you have to understand how that works or else you’re not going to be able to run your business.

Eberhart: Understanding why you’re given certain time lines as a creative is definitely valuable. Especially in terms of a younger creative career, they’ll say ‘I need x number of days in order to complete a project.’ You’re typically given 50 percent of that time. If you understand at least something like that in terms of just billing structure, its super helpful, just in terms of your well- being.

Other than time management, what do you think is most important for creatives to learn?

Eberhart: I think one of the big pieces that was never really given to me was, ‘Who are your customers?’ I think a lot of times it’s presumed, especially when you have a strong brand, like H&M. But there’s still some nuance of customer data that’s super important. There’s a lot you can do as a creative when you really understand who the customer is.

Were there any pivotal moments in your career where your business skills played a key role?

Eberhart:  Working at MP Creative we got the call to pitch a campaign to an accessories brand that wanted to capture a new market segment. I knew the moment I read the brief that their plan would leave a lot of existing customers unhappy, and it certainly wouldn’t drive enough acquisition to replace all the attrition. I did a load of research for a completely left field proposal: rebrand the business.  

They were definitely blindsided by the proposal, but we got the call a couple weeks later that they wanted to move forward. The strategy made sense, and as a result we got to touch every single aspect of the business–from omni-channel marketing and creative to product development and in-store. All in all, the relationship spanned something like 6 or 7 years, not the 18 months we originally pitched.

Audio from my presentation at Digiday Agency Summit 2016


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