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

Last of a series
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

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