Kaitlin Doherty: speaking up for the account people

—MARK SMYKA joined the ad world as a reporter with Marketing magazine at the tail end of the Mad Men era. One of the sacred rituals of the day was lunch, a time when industry people would take a break to talk shop, commiserate, quarrel, gossip or simply revel in the business itself. In this series, Smyka revives the lunch tradition for intimate conversations with icons of Canadian advertising and marketing—

Back in my day, on-the-job learning was something that went basically in one direction—it came from above. In journalism, where I started, the desk editors and senior reporters knew everything. It was up to us, the aspiring young writers, to absorb as much of their wisdom and experience as possible and then apply it to our work.

The digital age and the remarkable know-how of digital natives have reversed that process. Not so long ago I had the good fortune of working with a very bright and creative young woman who was, according to the job description, hired as my assistant. I suppose my industry experience taught her a few things, but in truth, over the next several years she patiently, subtly, respectfully and by example guided me through the nuance of how to function in today’s complicated communications universe.

I recently lived the experience again after Kaitlin Doherty reached out to me.

Doherty is founder and managing director at The Local Collective, which opened about two years ago in Toronto. I first met her some 10 years ago, when she was a junior account executive at Cossette. She contacted me because of how I had characterized account people in a recent column, writing: “The account side is where you find the relatively strait-laced women and men who take people to lunch and act as an interface between clients, their money, and the rest of the agency.”

In the kindest way, Doherty took me to task. She wondered why our industry always seems to put the spotlight on all parts of the advertising ecosystem except the account people. She suggested I could do something to change that.

I figured it was time for me to learn again, so I asked her to lunch.

She is there ahead of time, waiting for me in a booth at the craft brew pub I have suggested. A client once confessed to me that one factor in choosing an agency was whether you could see yourself spending five hours together on a plane. The estimable Kaitlin Doherty is that kind of person.

“From start to finish, it’s the account team that is leading the ride,” she says with a certainty and positivity that are absolutely infectious. “The business really is about the team and the challenge is to always make the work better. As the account person you need to know when to encourage the team, when to push back with the client, or sometimes when to simply say ‘No.’

“There has to be a lot of trust, both within the agency and between the agency and the client. And there needs to be accountability. I think that’s one of the prime responsibilities of the account people… they hold the accountability.”

Asked to identify the qualities or character traits that best define a good account person, Doherty responds immediately: entrepreneurship. “But I think all agency people have an entrepreneurial spirit,” she adds. “We just figure out how to get things done. That’s what we seem to have in common.”

***

It was the freewheeling style of agency life that first drew her into the business. She had just graduated from the University of New Brunswick with a degree in marketing and human resources and had no idea what she was going to do with it. An internship at a small East Coast agency came up, and she got the job.

“I fell in love with the fast pace and the problem-solving. There were always so many moving pieces. It was incredibly stimulating and I just knew the business was for me. I love getting things done. I’m not the kind of person who books meetings just for the sake of it. That forty-five minutes isn’t where the magic happens. Ideas don’t get built inside an Excel document.”

Doherty moved to Toronto and interviewed all over town. She eventually got a gig at a small independent, then landed her first big job at Cossette in 2010, as a junior account executive on McDonald’s as well as a bit of Procter & Gamble and Coca Cola. It was three and half years of intense apprenticeship.

“I think the personality of every agency is in one way or another a reflection of the people who started it. That’s what separates one agency culture from another,”she  observes. “At Cossette, you could feel the entrepreneurial spirit of its founders throughout the place. There was a real passion for the craft. I loved every minute of it.”

Her next move was to Anomaly, where she led work on the Bud Light brand, followed by stints at John Street and Red Lion. A little less than two years ago, Doherty joined a team of executives from Red Lion to help co-found The Local Collective, where she is a partner and managing director.

While being part of a start-up has satisfied her entrepreneurial urgings, she says she still loves being an account person. ” I love learning about different businesses, what the clients really they do, what their goals are, and what they dream of, both for their businesses and personally. It’s much more than just the communications.”

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In conversation over what makes the essential account person, Doherty keeps returning to the theme of trust as the foundation for everything.

“It is the client’s responsibility to understand that to get the best out of the agency you have to give them the best chance to succeed. That means being open and honest about what your goals are, both business and personal, and then trusting your agency to get you there. If you as the client are just going to ask your agency to do what you want, well, you might as well cut your own hair.”

The trust element, she says, extends throughout the entire agency, from strategy to creative and through to production. “You need to earn the trust of the whole team and also trust that their craft will get you to where you want to be, and then be ready to stand up for them if it comes to that.”

Sometimes it requires stepping right into the creative process and making sure that a sensitive ego doesn’t derail or unduly influence the idea. “Part of the process is making sure that people don’t get in their own way, and that is a delicate balance, but an important part of creativity.”

At the same time, you need the trust of the client… they need to trust that you will remain focused on achieving the results that they’re looking for.

“So you are in the middle, and you can’t be afraid to say ‘No’ to either side,” says Doherty. “My job is to create an environment where these two very different worlds can co-exist and talk to each other and trust each other. And they need to trust that if I step in, I’m doing it for all the right reasons.”

The account people can play this role because they haven’t actually created the work, she says.

“For the creative, it’s so personal. They are standing there naked and I can understand how they can’t separate themselves from it. The account people are a small step away from the creative process and that’s what removes the tension. Without the buffer of the account person, I’m not sure the work would get to being great.”

Ironically—and this may be one explanation why account people don’t get the press that they deserve—when the job is done properly, it isn’t apparent. Doherty calls it “the invisible hand.”

“When [account service] is done poorly, it can be a disaster,” she says. “When it’s done well, you don’t even know it’s there.” She likens it to kerning in design. “Most of the time you’re not aware of it. But when it’s off, you notice it right away. Suddenly it just doesn’t feel right.”

Now that she is a founder and agency owner, Doherty can put her account service theories to practice. She relishes the opportunity of shaping an agency personality and culture herself.

“I’ve worked so hard at my craft and now I can apply it as a business leader to reflect the way the industry is evolving, both internally within my agency and externally with our client partners,” she says. “The account people we bring into our agency need to have the skills I’ve just talked about and they must be able to lead with their own invisible hands.”

 

Mark Smyka