30 November 2012

The Road Less Taken

This series has argued that account management is at a crossroads, a potentially dangerous intersection where a wrong turn could lead to bad consequences for the industry.

The industry may choose the wrong path, but you don’t have to go along with it.  If you’re an account person, or want to be one, you can succeed where (many) others fail.

How we arrived at this crossroads

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It’s instructive to remember how we arrived at this crossroads.  Three significant changes in agency structure over the past couple of decades have restricted the role of account executives.  The first was the unbundling of media – sadly, many account people just think about creative, not where the creative should connect with consumers.  The next was the advent of strategic planning – too many AEs gladly surrender strategy, absolving themselves of responsibility for the creative brief.  The third was labor-based compensation – pay-by-the-hour schemes that focused efforts only on making ads, less on business-building ideas.

So here we stand.  None of us can pretend to fix account management across the industry.  Each of us must decide what road we will follow.  Here’s my advice.

Business Partner, not Order-Taker

Being a Business Partner means learning your client’s business, brands, competition and challenges.  It means knowing sales and market share at any given moment.  It means having a point of view on how to build the business.  It’s a role only account management can fill.  It can’t be faked – clients know when your commitment is genuine and sincere.

In the same way, a Business Partner isn’t confrontational or argumentative.  They serve the client by adding value.  Yes, there’s some order-taking involved; we are in a service business.  If all you do is take orders, though, you’re likely to be replaced because anyone can do that.

How do you do it?  First, pay attention.  Listen to what your client says about her business.  Second, do your homework.  Go to where your client’s product or service is sold and understand the transaction.  Read everything you can about what they sell and do.  Learn the consumer better than anyone else.  Know the competition.

The path of the Order-Taker is Follow... Manage... complete Tasks.  The path of the Business Partner is Lead... Imagine... bring Ideas.

Bring Business-Building Ideas

The greatest account people are the ones who bring business-building ideas to their client.  If you’ve done your homework and gained an intimate knowledge of the client’s business, you’ll be on your way.

Many newly-minted account people spend the first year or two figuring out the agency side of the business – how to get the ads out.  Being able to simultaneously create business-building ideas might require some practice.

Years ago one of my bosses assigned me and a couple of colleagues to each bring him every Friday at 4 p.m. an “Idea of the Week”.  (Nothing motivates like a deadline and a little peer pressure.)  There was a catch:  we also had to go forth, sell the ideas to our clients and make them happen.  Many of the ideas flunked, but a few were actually pretty good, and we learned from both the failures and the successes.

The AE isn’t the only one who can conceive a business-building idea, but she is the only one who, being a Business Partner, can lead the agency team to one.  Account people, knowing the client’s business, should look for opportunities to invent new products, suggest line extensions or recommend restages.  They can also innovate in writing the positioning or claim that will sell what the client invented.

Build an Environment for Great Creative

Being a Business Partner and having a line of sight into what the client needs makes you eminently qualified to help the creative team get to an idea that will change consumer behavior.  The AE who shows up just to shepherd projects to completion will be leaving creatives and planners adrift without what they need to do great work.

An old mantra for AEs at Leo Burnett was “get the copy right”.  To me, it’s a little bit of a holdover to when print was the main medium and when account people edited copy a little too freely, but the general point is right:  Pay attention first and foremost to the agency’s creative product.

Along the way, respect your creative partners.  Some great advice comes from this article by Larry Weisberg, former president of Waring & LaRosa.

Pay Attention to Media

About a year ago, trying to nail down some information about an international project, I called the person responsible for that part of the world.  My question:  “Can you tell me about the media plan?”  His answer:  “I really don’t know much about that country and I know even less about media, so I really can’t help you.”  I don’t fault this fellow for not knowing the answer.  It really bugged me, though, that he was unwilling to even look into it.  (He left the agency soon after.) 

The point of the story is that media is off the radar screen of most account people.  It’s understandable insofar as most agencies spun off their media departments in the 1990s.  It’s amazing, though, that account people wouldn’t want to know where the creative work was going.  It’s even suicidal given the fact that media long ago went beyond TV, Radio, Print and Outdoor.

In other words, you can only be useful to your client if you have a clue about media and all the options for connecting with consumers.  If you leave it to “the media agency,” “the PR agency,” “the digital agency,” “the promotion agency” or “the lead agency” you will be at the mercy of turf wars over agency revenue instead of making a great plan that benefits the client.

Develop Curiosity

Related to the previous point, you have to be in constant learning mode.  If you don’t understand social media, study on it.  Better still, open a Twitter account and experiment.  If you don’t understand shopper marketing, you should.  In the words of GSD&M’s Duff Stewart, “A successful leader in advertising … today is defined by curiosity.” 

Curiosity goes beyond learning about different media.  Yesterday I interrupted my schedule to attend an internal presentation about the latest in web design.  No, I don’t expect to start writing code in 2013, but understanding what goes into it will help me help others do their jobs – and maybe spark an idea.

Curiosity and Anticipation go together.  It’s logical that if curiosity broadens your perspective – your radar screen, if you will – then you’ll also see things coming from much further away.  Your ability to anticipate will be greater. 

Which road will you take?

This series started by posing the question “Is great account management a lost art at advertising agencies?”

No, but it will be if we don’t pay attention.  It’s a given that the industry is in turbulence, but we can’t just know it’s in turbulence, we have to do something about it.

It’s up to you to decide what you’re going to do.  Hopefully this series has given you a few ideas, or at least the basis to think of your own ideas.  It’s just one man’s advice.  Take what you need, and leave the rest.

The first post in this series was Account Management at a Crossroads

26 November 2012

Account Management IS the Radar

A colleague lamented how things on a project were “happening under the radar”.  Another colleague, typically blunt, pointed out, “You are the radar.”

That’s always true for account people.  On every piece of business, account management is the radar.  We function like radar in at least three ways.

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Expect the Expected

Account management is much more than project management, yet project management is a big part of what account people do.  Agencies are a service business and clients expect us to run the trains on time (and on budget, of course).  Once you get the hang of it, project management is predictable.

The first type of radar, then, is to expect the expected.  Think ahead.  If the creative idea will drive up the cost of talent, help the team figure out a plan rather than letting it go and surprising the client later.  As one of my first bosses said, “I always look for an A.E. who can anticipate.”

Expect the Unexpected

The second kind of radar is when something unexpected or unforeseen pops up.  This isn’t just watching out for the agency’s work, but the client’s business.  The highest tribute ever paid to an account person was MillerCoors CMO Andy England saying of Marty Stock:  He “often knows I have a problem before I do.”  It’s important to get the context here:  England was referring to Stock’s foreknowledge of a business problem, as in declining market share, disastrous trial for a new product, or a new competitive threat.

These kinds of things aren’t so predictable.  Then again, most of the advertising industry isn’t so predictable these days, so get used to it.  Expecting the unexpected also includes staying on top of new media, new products and new ways of doing business.  If you’re on top of the changes, you’ll be much more useful to your client.

Radar Navigates

An account person isn’t simply a radar operator.  It’s your job to lead the team in setting a course.  Where does the business need to go?  Maybe an iconic, long-running ad campaign needs to be updated – or replaced.  Perhaps you’ve identified a market opportunity where the client should line-extend or develop a new product.  Or you noticed a competitor’s blind spot your client can exploit.  It’s possible that the consumer is changing and it’s not good news for your brand.  Working with your team, you can choose the right priorities – not just doing things right, but doing the right things.

We think of radar as something that detects unplanned things or events, like bad copy test scores or alien invasions.  But radar is also a navigational tool, helping you stay on course even – or especially – when the voyage is smooth.

Your Radar for 2013

This is a great time of year to think about setting the agenda for your work in 2013.  The last weeks of the year are a reflective time, given naturally to assessing what we’ve done and what we want to do.  If you’re experiencing a huge end-of-year rush, it’s still a good time to think about next year.  Nothing clarifies your thinking like a busy season.

You might be a junior account executive and think it’s not your job to set the agenda.  No, but you can contribute to setting the agenda.  Advertising is a team sport.  Bring your ideas forward and be ready to learn.

Next:  The Road Less Taken

12 November 2012

Bad Account Management Leads to Bad Creative

The first two posts in this series outlined how advertising agency account management is at a crossroads, identifying (so far) three reasons why:  (1) Surrender of Strategy, (2) Project Management, and (3) Inward Focus.

Why should we care?  Because bad account management leads to bad creative.

The Shared Purpose of Account and Creative

The purpose of an ad agency is to build a client’s business.  The main way an agency builds its client’s business is with creative.  Transformative ideas that don’t just entertain or inform; they change behavior. 

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In this sense, one of the key roles of an account person is to create an environment for great creative.  That means:  Knowing the client’s business; gaining their confidence; getting to the right copy strategy; finding the right channel mix, and speeding the approval of the actual creative.

So the account person has a critical role – but never works alone.

The Shared Partnership of Account and Creative

In my experience the agency’s work is best when there is a strong partnership between the account lead and the creative lead.  Actually this partnership is important at all levels, but the account and creative leads have to set the example.  As an account management leader, my job has been most satisfying when I’ve had that kind of partnership.  I need to have someone to collaborate with, someone to work with, and – yes – someone to fight with.  In the words of King Solomon: “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.”  (I don’t mind adding that talking over this post with a valued creative partner caused me to totally rewrite what you’re reading right now.)

A strong, honest partnership results in great creative because the account director and creative director push each other.  Do we understand the consumer?  Have we defined the business need?  Is the claim relevant?  Can we turn this into a compelling story?  Each must do their job and allow the other to ask hard questions so the advertising can do its job.

This is somewhat of a checks-and-balances relationship but not a back-and-forth argument.  Instead it’s a “Yes, And…” collaboration where the account director and creative director build on one another’s contributions.

The Curse of Project Management

When account people don’t hold up their end of the relationship, it’s harder to deliver great creative.  The strategy and the creative are less likely to carry a business rationale.  Can the creative director do it anyway, with the assistance of the strategic planner?  They’re forced to try in organizations where account management is more like project management.

It would be so much easier for all of them if the account person, who is talking to clients anyway about meeting schedules and approvals, would also be the agency’s voice on business strategy.  That client relationship would go from transactional to consultative with a good amount of effort beyond just project management.

The Shared Partnership of Agency and Client

Still, that client relationship is not the exclusive province of the account person.  If an agency’s relationship with a client relies only or mainly on the account person, then it’s doomed.

The best creative directors I’ve worked with are the ones who care about the client’s business as much as I do.  That kind of commitment shines through in client conversations – why not let the client see that passion at work?  A good account person makes that happen.

Next:  Account Management IS the Radar

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.

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.