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.

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