He’s worn every Accounts hat there is. Why he tips them all to Creative

As a college advertising intern at JWT in New Delhi, Rahul Roy realized his limitations. Despite his degree in English Literature, he was a terrible copywriter. But account management — now that he could do.

After learning the ropes at the agency that became McCann-Erikson India, Rahul came to the U.S. to pursue graduate school in 1990. Along the way, via Tatham/EuroRSCG, JWT and FCB, he’s worked in every business category, handled global accounts, managed larger and larger teams and headed a 150-person department. Today he leads client services at OKRP.

A lot has happened in those three decades. In this bar stool interview, Rahul discusses how account management has changed, why “credit is for creatives” and how to authentically build a culture of diversity and inclusion.

You’ve got the bug for advertising. What makes you excited when you walk in every day?

It’s probably a cliché, but I genuinely mean this: That first excitement I felt being with people who could come up with a creative idea almost on demand was really fascinating to me. It’s almost like seeing artists go to work. And I knew I wanted to be close to that even though I couldn’t do it myself. So how could I help them do their work? And I still feel that today, as much as I did all those years ago.

So how do you do that?

I think, I hope, I try, to show creative people that I care about the creative work more than they care about the function of account management, that’s it. It’s not rocket science.

If you’re with a creative person and they’ve written something, actually asking them why they came up with that, where did that idea came from, what insight led you there? That really helps me understand the idea process. I have this thing about “to be interesting you have to be interested.” Be interested in them and you will become a much better account person.

For the uninitiated, what does an account person do every day?

In essence, it’s being the operations orchestrator, every single day. You’re the only person expected to know everything–how to handle the budget, how the client works, what’s needed to deliver solutions to brands, who are the right people in the agency to work on this, who are the right partners to bring to the table, and so on.

I used to talk about the hub and spoke. In the old days, the account people were at the center. They were the only people with access to all parts of the agency and the client. Now that we’re more team oriented, I believe the role has changed. It’s focused more on the idea of, “Don’t worry, I’ll make this operation run, but how do I bring other people to the front?”

Good account people are always thinking: who’s the perfect planner, who’s the perfect creative, who’s the perfect digital person — and making them feel invested in the business.

Can you expand on that? What other qualities make for a good account person?

Well, first there’s functional requirements. You have to be a knowledgeable marketer. You need the ability to think like a strategic business person that clients can trust. Have a good sense for people. Be an organized orchestrator of resources. Be kind of unflappable.

The danger comes when account people, because of the nature of the work they do, start becoming like their clients. I think the real differentiator is with people who bring their own unique point of view to the business. I’ve found the best account people are the ones who don’t think like the clients. They know how to handle clients — but they think like an agency creative person.

How do you learn that? Can you learn that?

I think it’s all about exposure. If account people focus only on answering business questions, we stop being part of the creative solution. I think you learn it by constantly forcing yourself to say, “I’m supposed to have an idea, too.” And you have to keep pushing yourself to bring an idea, a thought, an insight, whatever, to the table.

And the other thing to keep in mind is that credit is for creatives. I hate account people that take the credit. You have to find a way to believe, “My job is to give him or her the credit.” That’s what makes a great account person. Of course, you should keep believing that this whole thing will fall apart without you — but please, find a way to give credit to someone else.

With that being said, what challenges do creatives and account people have in working together?

They fundamentally approach things from two different points of view. And I’m part of this. I may say I love creative, but I find myself needing to dissect it. I begin more logically, rationally. I’m also worrying about how much can I sell to a client. I’m bringing all these operational things to the table, and the creative person is saying, “All I know is I got a great idea.” There’s a fundamental tension in that.

A great line I heard once is that the job of an account person is to close the distance — it’s a great analogy. People always come at problems from different point of views. So, the account person should be the one who closes the distance — between strategy and creative, between creative idea and practical solution, between client and agency, between impossible and how-to-get-it-done. Closing the distance becomes your key job. I think that’s how you do it.

You mentioned earlier that the role of the account person has changed. What exactly has changed?

The basic role is still the same, but the execution of the role has changed because account managers, over the years, are no longer that valued. As client pressures to cut costs have increased, agency teams have shrunk accordingly. Today, clients look for their key agency person, not necessarily an account team.

In other words, clients want direct access to whoever’s going to give them an idea that solves their problem. In most cases, the intangible parts of those problems are solved by creative people.

Basically, what’s changed is that clients don’t want a “handler” anymore. They don’t care whether you’re taking them out for dinner or lunch — the premium on, and time for, relationships has really tightened.

At the same time, there’s no way you can forget about the relationship. It’s a weird business because the best accounts are still the ones that have great account people who build trust and relationships with clients and across internal teams. In my opinion, I think the role of the account person has become even more important because you need someone to care about the whole package even more, because no one has time.

How does one do that?

I’ll tell you how I think about it. I believe my role is to protect the agency and the creative people to allow teams to get to the best client solution. I need to make sure that creatives have the mental space to think about that blank page. I can’t do what they’re doing. So, I need to make them feel like all their problems are my problems and they have the freedom to create while I handle the problems.

Take the term “account management.” In my book, account means accountability. If you can be the one who assumes that protecting the idea is always my problem, then you’ll be a great account person.

With that in mind, when you came to OKRP, how did you decide to set up the account team? Did you have any principles that you were following?

I come back to, look for traits. What’s that old recruiting cliché? You can train for skills, so hire for attitude. Honestly, I always assume someone is going to make sure that this candidate I’m interviewing is functionally competent. So, I try and ask candidates about what they feel. Specifically, why do you love this business?

One of the things I always used to ask people is why do you think you’re different? And don’t tell me you’re great with people, you’re organized, you manage a budget, you’ve done it all, blah, blah. Rather, tell me what is it about you that a creative director will want in a meeting? You can see it with the best ones, they have such passion for this business. And it makes creative people feel, “Okay, that person is going to sell my work.” There has to be something that sparks your imagination about this business.

I think we’ve built a pretty diverse team here because we keep looking for people who bring something different, as opposed to, find the “right” person and then clone them.

How do you create diversity of thought on your team?

You don’t create it. You have to actually look for it. You can’t say I’m going to build around the best functional competencies because then you’ll never actually find interesting people. Start with the interesting people, have a conversation with them about what drives them and then see how that fits.

I always say diversity of thinking and culture first, color will follow. Everyone seems to always talk about diversity & inclusion in terms of how to broaden ethnic diversity. I believe we should flip that — give me people who think differently and cultural diversity comes along naturally.

We had no plan when we started hiring that we were going to have x number of non-Caucasians. But it’s kind of interesting that today, of 20 account people, 11 are non-Caucasians. We didn’t search for that. We just actively searched for people who think differently.

How do you keep the team gelling when you have such diversity?

At the beginning of the year, I did a team exercise that was deliberately designed to demonstrate that to build a team, you have to get to know each other and believe in each other. And in order to know each beyond superficialities, you genuinely have to go beyond why the person next to you joined the agency or what their job is. To believe in you, I need to know what you really care about. If you write poetry, that tells me something much more about you than whether you work late every day. If you really care about your mom and what she taught you, then I need to be conscious of that.

An ex-boss of mine once said to me: “What makes Indians different is we don’t start with business, we start from the assumption that we first have to get to know each other.” So, if I first get to know you, then we’ll work together better. It feels like that’s the more human thing to do.

How does an account person maintain their edge? Do they read a lot? Travel? Expose themselves to different cultures?

I think you have to do all of that. Clearly, I’m an older guy. What the hell do I know about the latest app or technology? But if I stay in touch with people around me who are in touch, then I can be as well. That’s why I think it’s important to emphasize a culture of bringing in young people and being in touch with what they are–at this point, I should just be a guide.

So, you can do whatever you want, but if you’re only reading advertising books, you’ll be irrelevant pretty quickly. One of my personal things was I never read business books. 
 
 Really?

History and fiction — because it felt like that’s the voice of the world out there. So, let me read about the world. I don’t want to read about better ways to do my job. That I can learn from someone, I can talk to someone. Along the way, I had to read some business books because I went to grad school, other people were reading them, whatever. But fundamentally I never believed I needed to read business books. I felt like I need to read books so I can think better, as opposed to be trained in the five steps of account management. That way just felt backwards.

I keep going back to the functional versus the intangible. What still inspires me about this business is not the fact that I can be a business person, but that I can be around creative people who can do what I can’t do. The more interest I have in that, the better I’ll be, the more in touch I’ll be, the better my output will be.

I go back to “To be interesting, be interested.” Be interested in everything. Again, there are so many people around here who do really interesting things outside the office. We need to tap more into that because that’s what will make our work more interesting.

You’ve said that a couple times. To be interesting, be interested. Tell us more about that.

I heard that in a speech and the principle of it made a lot of sense. For people to be interested in you, you have to be interested in them. How do you be interested? Be curious. What does someone read? What do they believe in? What do they do outside of work? Where do they find their own inspiration? And then if you can have those conversations, if you’re truly interested in people, they’ll bring that to work and some of that impacts the work and the work gets better.

In a presentation that you give, you share all sorts of great advice. I want to go into some of these ideas further with you. The first one is “Embrace people smarter than you.” What does that mean to you?

That’s a simple one. When you’re an orchestrator of resources, if you try to be the smartest person in the room, you’ll never get the most rounded or the broadest idea. If you find the best people and you’ve got no insecurity about having them in the room, all of you are better. So, if I embrace smarter people than me and bring them to the table, my work gets stronger.

This is especially true in account management — the best account people are the ones who say, “I don’t quite know how to do this, but I know the best person to do it for you.”

The next piece of advice you gave is, “Embrace a world wider than yours.”

We’re not just in the business of consumers but of people. And as the world has expanded and contracted at the same time, if we aren’t totally embracing the world outside whatever the definition of our own personal world is, it won’t be great advertising.

My favorite example has always been Heineken’s launch ad for their “Open The World” campaign. It was this crazy dodge through multiple cities that this guy takes his date on, finding newer and madder worlds in every scene. What startled me was the entire background track was a 1960s Bollywood song sung entirely in Hindi — and this was launched in Amsterdam and the U.S. I remember thinking, who the hell thought that one up?

Think about it: in 2011, somebody at Wieden+Kennedy pitched to Heineken that we’re going to pick an obscure Muslim singer from Bombay who sang this song in a Bollywood musical from 1964 that, by the way, none of you ever heard about but don’t worry, that’s going to be our soundtrack. What? But when you see it all put together it makes total sense–they opened the world.

It always inspired me. If we actually push ourselves to look that far out for inspiration, look what happens. That ad at that time was the most watched on YouTube globally. Their business went straight up for seven years with that campaign and it all started with an ad that was driven by some random musical choice that some really creative person with a really open mind said, “This will make the point without even speaking the point.”

It ties back to being interesting. If you look for things outside of you, you bring them back to work and we all seem to be better.

One more piece of advice you give is “Be a student of culture.”

That’s almost the most obvious one and I’m probably the worst at this because I’m too old for this now.

No!

OK, OK, here’s my take — for example, looking at new music forms always blew my mind. I love 60s and 70s soul, that’s who I am. So, it drove me crazy that my son got into underground rap. For a long time, I just didn’t understand it, so I used to give him shit that it’s not melodic, I don’t get it, they have no sense of music, it’s just noise.

My eyes opened when for one of my birthdays he made me a CD and said, “My people understand your people.” He had found 10 rappers that all used the backbeats of 60s and 70s rock and soul artists and rapped over it. And I thought, you know what? He’s right. Up to this point I had told him your people don’t know music — but they had not only studied its history, they had used it to amplify their own. Just because I wasn’t connecting with the music doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be open.

Viewing culture through my kids’ eyes has allowed me to start looking at things much more openly. So, that’s the student of culture — actively search out what’s happening today even if you’re not part of it.