01 November 2012

Account Management at a Crossroads

Is great account management a lost art at advertising agencies?

First of a series
Like everything else in advertising, account management is changing.  In this case, though, it may not be changing for the better of agencies and their clients.

Account People of Ye Olde Marketing

I never advocate for a return to the past, but a fast review of history is instructive.  Advertising agencies have only been around for a century or so, growing out of the business of media sales, especially newspapers.  Up through the 1940s, when radio was an important medium, the account executive was a multipurpose player, handling clients, research, copy, talent and production.  (If you want a good insight on this period, read The Hucksters by Frederic Wakeman.)  Starting with the creative revolution of the 1960s, the modern account executive role took shape.  The guy (yes, they were mainly guys) who represented the agency to the client and the client to the agency.

Some Things Don’t Change

Regardless of era, the greatest account people then and now are the ones who bring ideas to their client.  Creative people bring creative ideas, media people bring media ideas, and planners bring strategy, but the account people should bring business building ideas.  It’s not enough to know what the agency sells and how to deliver on it.  You have to gain intimate knowledge of the client’s business (like this and this).

Something Changed

In the last decade or so, there have been signs that account management lost its way.  While you can still find great account people at advertising agencies, you also find many who bring no ideas, no curiosity, and not much else beyond project management.  Read these points of view by Babita Baruah, Lakshmipathy Bhat and Robert Solomon and see if they don’t ring true.  A year or so ago the New York Times ran an article suggesting the “account executive” title was outdated.  Back in 2010, Advertising Age observed that some agencies were indeed cutting the department entirely.

Something Needs to Change

I’ve had this discussion with a number of people from around the industry, and unfortunately there is a lot of agreement.  Delving deeper, there’s a sense that more experienced account people know or remember what it’s like to be a business partner, not an order taker.  We’re not training the less experienced people, however, like we used to do.  The art is getting lost because we are not passing it along.

Account Management at a Crossroads

Starting with this and a few more posts, we’ll try to start a discussion about the state of account management, and how to ensure it adds value in the modern advertising agency.  I’d welcome your comments and suggestions, starting in the space below.


  1. A very good post Steve. I also re-read the post by Lucky Bhat who was a colleague at Draftfcb Ulka India, before he turned entrepreneur. I think there is a crying need for account people today who can think business, not just consumer insights, creative ideas, media ideas or social media. With growing fragmentation of media, nano second attention span of consumers, clients need the help of sane account people who can partner them in building their business and brands. May be the industry did a huge disservice by embracing the 'unbundling' mantra, without putting in safeguards of training all rounders to run account management. A key area of trainign for us in India is to give our key account management people a deeper knowledge of all aspects of advertising, so that they can partner clients in building business, not just look at other faces in meetings, as Lucky Bhat has pointed out.
    ambi Parameswaran

  2. Steve... I have been very vocal about a couple of points in the past:

    #1 - Ideas by themselves are rubbish. We are in only two businesses: if you are the client, you are in the business of selling your stuff profitably. If you are the agency, you are in the business of persuading people to buy that stuff. Too often agencies present ideas after ideas that are "cute" or "creative" but do not move the business forward in terms of persuasion. Our "creative awards" are full of that shit.

    #2 - Agencies are in the pickle that they are now because they have no way to prove to the client that their advertising works. Notice I did not say "sell"... there are way too many factors (distribution, pricing, competitive promotions...). However, at the very least, one should be able to state "yes, my product does what it is intended to do"

    Agencies are alone in spending zero, zilch, nada... in basic R&D for their own product.

    The account management function is a solid "meh". Who cares what you call it?

    The next generation of agency generalist will need to be a person who can see the dozens of audience fragments, understand what message should go where, how to get it there, how to close the circle (I even heard 720 degrees as the ANA Conference this week) and prove to the client that "yep, this ad will work" then track it mercilessly.

  3. Steve - thanks for taking on this subject. Having spent years in both large and small agencies, and about 12 years as a client, I agree there is much less concern today and the business partnership between agencies and client. There are still many excellent partnerships, but in my opinion, the bad ones seem to come more from poor client training than poor account management training, and there is a long history of this problem. Way back in 1985, I had Kraft clients who came out of P&G with the belief that an adversarial relationship with your agency produced the best results. So idiocy has a long history. We recently had a large client who espoused partnership in the beginning but really just wanted us to do what they said. With the greatest respect and humility we shared our POV's, which sometimes conflicted with the client, and we were fired. Of course we're better off without them, but the employees we had to let go may not agree. The concept of a business partnership was out of balance in this relationship.

    So I'm advocating business partnership training for both agencies and clients. B-schools aren't doing this and the frequent megalomaniac behavior of the C-suite is a poor example. At one time Dale Carnegie represented the model for sales training, but he was really promoting business partnerships. Balancing goals, process excellence and metrics alongside trust, integrity and respect is the right formula for success. Carry the torch Steve!

  4. Because today’s environment is stewarded in large part by client side procurement management, companies require client solutions teams that can act among other things as a business growth units. This should be a team of high level, senior executives who, over time and increased knowledge of a client’s business can carry new strategies to further benefit the client’s business and increase their organization’s sales.

    It is becoming increasingly important for growth directors to consider a client management structure that is tied to the daily workings of each major account. Most sales forces function in a somewhat “siloed” manner, generally seeking business from new clients, rather than focusing on existing ones. Growth management teams must be able to look at the big picture or the “integrated strategic picture” for its existing business base.

    Growth Management Objectives
    • Develop client relationships at the highest levels to enable your organization to have access to and understand client needs
    • Provide neutral, integrated solutions focused on meeting identified client needs
    • Create platforms to evidence your company’s qualifications and competencies in delivering reliable solutions on time and to specification
    • The business proposition of a growth management team is to create better ways to build revenue…to transact client relationships in an efficient manner to maximize profitability.

    This approach requires two primary business components. First, a day-to-day operations and service experience enabling team directors to conceptualize how a strategy for incremental business can work. And secondly, salesmanship; the ability to ascertain the relevant information required to bundle business services into larger responses and solutions. These two components combine the most important aspects of a traditional account director and specialty strategic business development or growth director. Importantly, when viewed in this way, the account team can provide a familiar operating logistic to the client…again, keeping a “same page mentality” for the account management team to accomplish its tasks.
    Creating a Client Centric Approach
    The Account Team must view itself as a Client Management Solutions Group, working with the client and internally to articulate:
    • What goals must be served by whatever action is taken
    • Which goals have the highest priority
    • What solutions groups, individually and collectively, will achieve the desired goals
    • Which choices seem best for the client

    The Big Question
    Will the client understand the “payoff” from our actions?

  5. Steve, great post and great discussion. I agree Account has lost its way. But, I also think many agencies have lost their respect for Account as a function. I cannot count the times I was told my sole function was to make sure the client bought the creative. If that is an agency's perspective, then that is what they are going to get. Worse yet is the agency that views Account as just a hub to coordinate the other services it sells with strategy being owned by planning; ideas by creative; timelines by project; etc.

    I was once told that my review as an Account person was predicated on the fact that my clients wanted me to be present at every meeting, because of the value and ideas I consistently delivered. Now, being on the client-side, I truly wish I had that in my account person.

  6. Great article, Steve. Thanks for sharing. Saludos, Diego

  7. Well said, Steve. I'd venture to guess that part of the confusion started when everyone started calling the "Research" department "Account Planning" because the term was "all the rage" in Europe.


  8. Steve - insightful and right on. I fired an ad agency last year for exactly the reasons you state..no creativity...lack of understanding my clients and my biz...and honestly a lack of energy and curiosity to do either. thanks and keep writing bro! You rock!