05 November 2012

Three Things Killing Account Management

The first post in this series made the case that advertising agency account management is at a crossroads.  The best account people are the ones who bring business-building ideas to their clients.  Many people still do this, but there are also a lot of people with no ideas, no curiosity, and not much else beyond project management.  If we continue down this path, account management will become a lost art.

Second of a series
Bag Carriers and Flower Pots

For decades, “bag carrier” was the worst epithet you could throw at an account person.  To be sure, one of my tasks as an assistant account executive at Leo Burnett was to carry the bag, but once we arrived at the meeting, my job was to help sell what the bag contained.

Years later in Latin America, a Mexican client, commenting on the meeting participation of one of our account executives, told me:  “No necesitamos un florero.”  We don’t need a vase, or flower pot.  This, too, is an old phenomenon.  What makes the modern situation different?

Three Things Killing Account Management

There are three things threatening the role of today’s account executive.  All three things are realities but none of them need to be barriers.  These are factors to leverage, not limit, what an account person can do.

1. Surrender of Strategy

There have been two major changes in the advertising agency model over the past two decades.  One is the unbundling of media planning and buying.  The other is the advent of Strategic Planning.  Account management surrendered responsibility in both cases.

Strategic Planning makes agencies better in two ways.  First, it adds to the team someone tasked with understanding the consumer better than anyone else.  Second, its deliverable is great creative.  Great strategy doesn’t matter unless it results in great creative.

I’ve had the pleasure of working with some incredible strategic planners who bring both benefits.  I’ve also seen some account people walk away and let those strategic planners do it alone. 

This is tragic, partly because account people used to do both of these things.  Embracing strategic planning, however, doesn’t mean surrendering the responsibility to add value via consumer insight and sharp strategy

The implication is that account management does less thinking, and hence is less useful to clients.  So how are they spending their time instead?

2. Project Management

In many places account management has yielded to project management.  One big reason why:  Labor-based compensation.

In the days of Ye Olde Marketing, when clients paid agencies a 15% commission on media and production, agencies had the financial flexibility to throw a lot of smart people at the business, people who brought the clients business-building ideas.  As the commissions dwindled, budgets got tighter, and one day everyone was getting paid by the hour.

We’ve already criticized labor-based compensation in another post.  The point here is different:  Labor-based compensation depends on a defined Scope of Work consisting of specific projects.  We’re expected to spend x hours delivering y number of TV commercials, mobile apps, shelf talkers or direct mail letters.  Rarely does the scope include “a POV on how larger consumer trends affect our starter-and-refill strategy.” 

In other words, agencies only paid to deliver ads aren’t likely to budget for staff hours devoted to added-value.  The account people will do whatever they must to get the ads out the door.  That’s more like project management:  write the timetable, schedule the meetings, and recap it in the email.  Everything must run smoothly in the agency.

3. Inward Focus

This is the most pernicious part.  Account people who disconnect themselves from consumers and strategy, working instead on project management, inevitably wind up with an inward focus.  That’s deadly in this business.  If your only contact with a client is answering their phone call, if your only understanding of a consumer comes from what you read, and if your only cooperation with colleagues is transactional, then your world is very small.

Advertising’s world is big.  That’s one of the things I love most about it.  Advertising gets you out of yourself.  You learn about human behavior and human achievement.  That is, why people buy the things that people invent.


  1. Take a look at the job descriptions for open positions and you can see the problem. Agencies don't know what they are looking for.

    People rage on and on about results but before you can measure results, you have to understand what it is you are providing. Advertising does not have a clear vision of what it is or what it provides for clients.

    Account services provides a valuable service to an agency when done correctly.

  2. The rise of the Strategist as Client Lead comes from agencies believing that clients want to feel they are talking directly to the people doing the 'real work' and not some middle-man.

    In my experience, Creative Directors and Strategists, as brilliant as they are at what they do, are often not the best at handling clients. They are great when things are going well but are frustrated easily in the sticky moments. They believe very strongly in their own ideas, which is important, but it tends to get in the way of caring very deeply about the client's problems which are always far more complex than what a great idea can solve.

    The fact that account direction has come to encompass project managent in many agencies precludes the role from performing any sort of leadership function.

    It is very difficult, if not impossible, to successfully perform the roles of Project Manager and Business Builder at once. They require totally different priorities and areas of focus. And client perception is certainly that if you are the person taking the meeting notes and booking the meetings you are not in an influential enough position to be listened to.

    I talk to a lot of Account Managers and Account Directors with ambitions to be the engines of growth for their agency but until the role is decoupled from project managent both practically and in the minds of clients, this will never happen.

  3. Great post, Steve. You're right in stating that this is being perpetuated by the move in compensation to hour-based methods which invite clients to pick apart the roles that they feel are less critical. Unfortunately, it's not until the work or the relationship fails that it is realized what the strong account manager was contributing...

  4. Kate
    I am currently in a senior client role. Formerly, I worked at a couple of large marketing consultancies and before that a senior account lead in an ad agency. I fundamentally disagree with you on a number of fronts: 1) it is NOT impossible to be a project manager and a trusted advisor. Ask anyone at McKinsey, Boston Consulting Group etc. they do it all the time. 2) clients want business building ideas and they don't care where they come from. Respect is earned, it is not given by a title or a departmnet 3) my experience with "strategists" or "planners" is extremely mixed as far as "doing the work" some exel at setting up research and interpreting data, others may or may not read the data and pontificate. Good ADVERTISING people ground themselves in the consumer, the client business need and create ideas to solve the client's problems. My experience's best practice is creativity and strategy are not any one department, they are collectively developed and executed within an agency. Everything else, is usually problematic in some way, shape or form