What'd We Learn When Grenadier's Jeff Graham Hosted ONCE?

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What’s ONCE? It’s a chance for a small group of hand-selected individuals to make the most out of an opportunity that is given to them once. One night. One hostage. One group of peers. One location. That will never be replicated again.

A few days ago, Jeff Graham — partner and account lead at his just-over-a-year-old Boulder agency, Grenadier — hosted a Session. Eight individuals had Jeff as their “hostage” for several hours, with gloves-off access to the brain of a former Account Director at Arnold, TBWA\Chiat\Day, Core and Crispin Porter + Bogusky. He’s lead brands like Virgin Mobile, Geek Squad, Volkswagen, Epiphone Guitars, Indian Motorcycle, Microsoft, Triscuit, Old Navy, Under Armour, Jack Daniels and the NFL. And he taught all of us an amazing amount about being an account lead clients love and creatives love to work with.

Here's some of what we learned.

– – – 

The location, an abandoned building located in old-town 5 Points, helped set up our “top secret,” intimate event. The cold, brisk air completed with snow falling from the sky helped create a sense of calmness as I embarked on this unknown experience. Inside, I was greeted by other account folks who, just like me. weren't quite sure what to expect. After shaking hands with everyone and getting a quick bite to eat, we all sat down in a very small room — lit by a single lightbulb and situated ourselves in a circle around a cooler full of booze.

There we sat, getting to know one another, understanding each other’s paths — where we started, where we’ve been and where are we now. It became apparent that although all of us in the room were “considered” account folks, each one of us played a different role at our agency and were at a different part within our career. However, as we continued to Q+A with our host of the evening, Mr Jeff Graham, I think we all realized that at the end of the night, despite our roles, career paths and even chairs that we were asked to bring — we all were focused on how to be a better account lead. Mr Graham, was honest, yet inspiring as he opened up to all of us. He confirmed that no one is perfect, but we can always strive to be better. And the best way to be a better account lead is to be true to yourself and find what works for you and own it.

At the end of the evening, I realized that it’s a very rare occasion that any of us are surrounded by our like-minded peers in a non-competitive, "anything goes" type of environment. It was nice to be able to ask questions and speak openly without the fear of being judged. For once, it was an event that you didn’t have to be associated with an agency per say, but instead a group of your peers who understand what you’re challenged with, day in and day out.

– Kara Watada | Account Director | FEAR NOT

– – –

Jeff started the session by speaking to the diverse and talented ad world in the Denver/Boulder area. “Why not us?” was his message. I heard a very similar message from the Seattle Seahawks quarterback the night before when they won the Super Bowl and, while advertising is a very different "sport" than football, the message was clear. We can be just as strong as the ad community in NY, LA, Minneapolis and are well on our way. It showed that he has a lot of faith in Colorado agencies and was a great confidence booster for all the hungry account people crowded in the basement of a junky old building, during a snowstorm and at the end of a full day of work.

Jeff's clear message about the two items that all account people should come to a creative kick off with —- a unique insight and great energy — is such a simple and attainable goal, yet so easy to forget in the hustle and bustle of crunched timelines, limited budgets and demanding clients. If all account people could arm themselves with those two items before ever downloading a creative, we would have much happier and more productive creatives — ultimately making the life of an account person easier.

In referring to himself as a “Creative Account Guy” he explained that being creative in an account role can range from getting scrappy with some self-made research, creative methods for meeting a deadline, all the way to developing a truly unique insight that instantly sets creative in motion. We all have something to offer and can have an effect on the end result.

Finally, even if you don’t develop a perfect brief, if you take the time to create one and challenge yourself to look at it from different angles, put energy into it, show that you care by being prepared and come with some motivation and positivity to a creative download, you will inevitably gain more respect and be better received by your creative team. This, in turn, makes the process more fluid and creates better work, which makes for happier clients and ultimately a more successful agency. Jeff’s raw delivery and innate passion and respect for the creative process is such great inspiration for any account person at any level.

– Blakely Strickland | Group Account Director | LRXD

– – –

:: Your creative brief should be a reflection of your agency. The culture and philosophy should be baked in, in some way. No two agencies should be able to use the same one. And if a client can understand and fill out your agency's brief on their own, it's probably not the best creative tool.

:: We, as account people have a responsibility to set the tone for each and every project that we run. Even if the client is less than thrilling, it's our job to find the silver lining and to motivate the rest of the team. Passion and enthusiasm are contagious, as are negativity and pessimism, so if we expect good work from our team, we absolutely need to avoid the latter. Jeff Graham is living, breathing truth of how important this is in driving great creative work.

:: While it's easy to let the daily grind and ridiculous insanity of advertising get in the way of what drew us all to it in the first place, it is possible to keep your enthusiasm and passion for the industry alive and well. There are innumerable things about Jeff Graham that make him one of the best account guys of all time, but his continuous love and appreciation of great advertising has to be at the top of the list. It's truly impossible to hate what you do when he's around. It's no wonder everyone wants him on their team.

– Jen Miller | Account Manager | Victors & Spoils

– – – 

1. Respect the brief.
It is all about the brief. No, really, IT IS ALL ABOUT THE BRIEF. As an account person, you have to learn the importance and treat it with the same thought and time that you expect out of the creative project that you're briefing on. Coach clients on the importance of the brief and their input. It is important for them to understand that the brief is an integral part of the strategic process that they hired your agency for.

2. Your agency is your client.
Understand that your team and your agency is your number one client. Harness and grow that relationship. After all, these are the people who will be in the trenches with you.

3. Know the importance of maintaining your own personal brand by truly being you.
Like the brands we serve, create and maintain, you, too, are a brand. Everyone on a team is a contributing piece to the overall puzzle. Know what your piece is, how you can make the puzzle better, and be the only person on the team who can fulfill that space.

4. It's ok to have a bad mouth.
We are in advertising, and some of the most successful thought leaders in our industry have a crude vocabulary — it's who they are, it's ok, and it can be charming.

5. Care about the creative as much as the "creatives."
The end product is what matters. Repeat.

– Camille Heinrich Ziccardi | Senior Account Manager | Karsh Hagan

– – –

Last week's ONCE Session was inspiring. It was such a unique experience, to hear Jeff's point of view on a range of topics, in the company of account people from almost a dozen other agencies. I learned a lot, but maybe the most important thing was that the things we stumble over on a daily basis will never go away. We have to turn our focus to making the work better, from our perspective, as account people. Jeff talked a lot about the value of a good creative brief and input. We were all aware of the power of a good brief, but he inspired me to put the responsibility on myself, as an account person and the originator of each campaign, to make this step of the process more meaningful and inspiring to the creative team. He shared examples of good and bad briefings that led to good and bad work, pointing out the opportunities taken and missed. He challenged us all to be a bigger part of the creative process and to become more effective account people.

– Kristin Lee | Account Executive | Cactus

– – –

Jeff's comments on the importance of a creative brief struck me the most. Certain projects are just as mundane and boring to an account person as they are to a creative team. If the brief lacks enthusiasm or any type of insight, then the greatness of the work is limited and bound to be just "okay." Not every brief will be amazing or inspire, but there is no excuse as an account not to provide a creative team with a piece of invaluable insight at the start of the project.

Hearing about Jeff working under a CD early in his career who welcomed his creative opinion and wanted him to break away from being a stereotypical account person resonated with me. I was fortunate enough to work under a CD who told me to go out and get an idea notebook, try and write it in every day. Just like Jeff's CD, he hated the idea of the division of departments. His whole point was that anyone can be a critic, but the best relationships between a creative and account come when the feedback is given in a relatable manner. Because at the end of the day a creative is tasked with having to make something fucking awesome every day.

– Desmond Branche | Creative Account Coordinator | Cultivator

– – –

:: Account needs to hold themselves responsible for the client relationship — If you have a difficult client relationship, then it is your job as the account liaison to change the situation. Which leads me to the next point...

:: Mentoring clients is just as important as mentoring staff — Let's make it a focus of Account Service to make better clients, not just better account people. Spend time educating clients on how your agency works and the steps that need to be taken in order to get the best creative product.

:: Research is not planning — Planning takes research and turns it into an actionable strategy and point of view. This key insight is the foundation for any brief as it gives the creative a clear perspective and starting point for developing concepts.

:: Your most important client is your agency — While Account Service can be the internal voice of the client, ultimately you need to be true to your team and be a champion of the creative product.

:: Be the account person that creatives turn to, not run from — Be yourself, give the teams the input and direction they need, understand they have the hardest jobs in the agency, and stand united with them.

– Ainslie Fortune | Senior Account Director | Factory

– – –

It was snowing, negative degrees and I was walking into what looked like a dimly lit abandoned building on Brighton Ave. with little idea of what to expect. I had heard about rumors ONCE and the night certainly didn’t disappoint. Jeff’s intense passion for the art of advertising was contagious and lit a fire in me.

:: Every creative brief needs an insight. Period. We all know this, but so often find ourselves strapped for time and dumping what Jeff referred to as “dirty diapers” on our creative team’s desk to let them clean up. Don’t do this. Give the brief the time it deserves, it’s your objective yardstick. As account people, we have the ability to set the tone for each and every project we introduce. Come to the table with passion and smart, strategic thinking even for the un-sexiest of projects — the creative will follow suite.

:: Be a creative account person. Don’t work at places that don’t allow this. Be scrappy, imaginative and above all else passionate.

:: Be the account person your team wants to work with. Respect the work and the process; give your team what they need to be successful. After all, how would you like to live with the fear that one day you might run out of great ideas?

:: Your agency is your most important client. Don’t lose sight of this. Fight any necessary battles before the presentation; when you’re with the client you’re a team.

– Brenna Hersey | Account Executive | Amelie

– – –

I thought this was a great event, and I'd do it again in a heartbeat. Honored that you guys asked me to be an account side speaker for this. The idea of "Ted Talk meets Fight Club" is a perfect way to describe ONCE.

I loved the cloak & dagger aspect of not knowing where it's going to be, or who is going to be there. The venue was very fitting. I liked the range of attendees — from young/new account folks to people who are group account leaders. It allowed the conversation to go from very basic stuff to higher level topics. Be sure to maintain that. This is an incredibly cool, innovative event series — and I hope you're able to get more folks to do it.

– Jeff Graham | Partner_Account | Grenadier


I'm biased, of course, but you couldn't have chosen a better guy for this "Fight Club-meets-Ted Talk" series of yours. Great stuff.

The first rule of ONCE is you do not talk about ONCE. The second rule is that you do not talk about ONCE. But seriously, sounds like a great event. Congrats, Jeff!

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