Back of House: Why is the business side of design always hidden?

Anoushka Rodda, co-founder and managing director of design studio Templo, questions why creatives are still stars of the show and how that is perpetuating an unfair view of the industry to its next generation.

26 May 2021


A few weeks ago Templo was contacted about our rebrand for the Climate Change Committee by an organisation wanting to feature the project online. All good. We submitted the images and cited the people involved. Including me who ran the project from start to finish. But my credit was dropped on publishing.

What is going on?

I have a few ideas but let’s begin with my journey to becoming managing director and co-founder of Templo. I studied graphic design at Kingston University, I loved it and I got a first-class degree. I went on to become a designer in a reputable studio but about a year in I decided wanted to go into account management. This is where designers normally ask me “what went wrong?” and the honest answer is – nothing. I just realised I enjoyed everything about being in the design industry: analysing the brief, meeting the clients, presenting, structuring, thinking, etc, apart from the actual design work. So, I got a job as a junior account manager in another studio and worked my way up to associate partner level. I set up Templo in 2013 with Pali Palavathanan and now run everything from our business strategy right the way through to the day-to-day management of projects. It’s varied, full-on, creative and exciting. And it involves as much blood, sweat and tears as the creative work that goes on in the studio.

So then why is there a celebrated “front of house” (being the creatives) and a hidden away “back of house” (typically account managers) dynamic to our industry?

There is certainly a legacy element that harps back to the old school industry ways of working and the era of the celebrity creative director who was supported by a team of minions facilitating their vision. This model was very ego-centric and a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy – the more recognition a creative director got, the bigger their ego grew, the more recognition they got, the more work that came into the studio, and so on.

I’ve done enough Myers-Briggs tests with creative and account management teams over the years to know that by contrast typically account managers are sensitive, great with people and generally not ego-driven. So perhaps we’ve just never thought to ask for more recognition before? Perhaps we are just accepting the status quo simply because that’s how it has always been? I’m not sure, but it’s time things changed.

“The relationship between creative and account teams is completely symbiotic; both needing the other in equal measure in order to sustain a design business.”

Anoushka Rodda

My account management friend in another studio tells me: “Back in the day when awards ceremonies happened in real life, the entire design team was invited to the awards night but me and my account management colleagues weren’t. It just never crossed anyone’s minds that we might want and/or deserve the recognition, to feel a part of the team and just celebrate at the end of years of hard work on an account.”

What I do know is that the people who pay our bills and keep the design industry going – our clients – value, love and need account management. But by contrast, awards bodies and the press aren’t fussed about who makes a project happen. The business side of design including account executives, account managers, account directors and project managers is somehow seen as less glamorous and not creative. Of course, there are nuances between the roles and a junior project manager will be less involved in the top-level decisions than an experienced account director, but still, everyone deserves recognition.

The relationship between creative and account teams is completely symbiotic; both needing the other in equal measure in order to sustain a design business. In my experience, it is the great account managers who expertly persuade clients, strategise the stakeholder landscape and dissect the brief to ensure that the boldest and creative routes are chosen. These are, by the way, often award-winning designs. Let’s not forget we are an industry of commercial artists who are paid to solve problems. We’re missing the point entirely if we have a creative solution that the client doesn’t buy into, and that’s where account managers can come in.

“When I was coming up I wish someone had told me how creative you get to be while not actually being a designer.”

Anoushka Rodda

The knock-on effect of all of this is that young people and students are often totally unaware of this fundamental aspect of our industry, which is so damaging. I have done numerous talks over the years explaining what I do and the career possibilities in the creative industry, and every time eyes light up and people say to me “I had no idea that a different kind of career was even an option”. Just a little knowledge and appreciation for these roles could open up so many career opportunities for the next generation. When I was coming up I wish someone had told me how creative you get to be while not actually being a designer and that there are myriad opportunities available to someone with a design degree.

Getting into really hot water now… there is also an undeniable gender element at play here. According to Creative Equals, only 16 per cent of creative directors are female and so, typically, top creatives tend to be male and account managers tend to be female. This is definitely not the case for every agency, and one of the best account managers I ever employed is male, but in general, this is how most studios are run. Is it OK that mostly male creatives are getting the credit for work that has mostly been facilitated by women?

Another of my female account management friends shared this story with me: “I’ve found with some international clients that I’m seen as the PA, not the account manager; they see me as the secretary just there to hold the male creative director’s bags, make tea and take notes. I wish the male creative director had made it crystal clear what my role was to the client from the outset as I have seven-plus years in the industry at this point.”

There has to be transparency around everyone that makes projects happen and the true collaborative spirit that sits at the heart of a successful creative process. It is our duty to change the perception of account management-type roles to inspire future generations who may be missing opportunities to get into and feed into the industry. In order to achieve that we need to challenge the conventions and change how things are done. This is not the “dark side” of our industry, it is fun, creative and puts food on the table, so how about we start by democratically crediting everyone involved in making a project happen?

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About the Author

Anoushka Rodda

Anoushka Rodda is co-founder and managing director of branding and digital agency Templo.

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