Account Management: have things really changed?

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There was an interesting article by @babitabaruah on the lost art of Account Management. From not knowing how to switch on the Proxima to not having a point-of-view on anything, pertinent issues regarding the quality of Account Management folks was raised.

We slouch.

We dress more casually than a Friday night out.

We do not talk. We do not make a point.

We have, in fact, no point of view, most of the time.

We look at the planner whenever a strategic question is asked, and stare at the creative when we need to recommend a creative route.

We lack relationship skills – internal as well as external.

Most of us have mastered the art of delegation.

There was a time when accounts moved with the account person.

Today we are lucky if we are even missed.

Do we have enough fire? Enough passion?

The pitfalls of being a mere ‘courier’ in Account Management (one who simply takes files back & forth from office to client’s office) have been drilled into me since I joined the business eons ago. I am sure all the Account Management folks who’ve been in business much before I joined have been told the same. We’ve all been told that as an Account Management person you are a brand custodian, a business man, a creative strategist…all rolled into one. Surely, the exceptional Account Management folks are. But not all of us are or can be exceptional. But it doesn’t stop us from trying. Unfortunately not many of us are trying.

The point of this post is not to hold a brief for mediocrity in Account Management. I guess the role is a ‘bits & pieces’ generalist role in an industry which is in a way bits & pieces. Let me explain: advertising has a little bit of everything – from psychology to art to film craft to science to art. No single person can be a master of all. The specialists among us – the film director, the media planner, the copy writer – all have clear cut roles to play and skill sets to showcase. The Account Management guy can provide the creative spark, can lead brand strategy, can monitor the media plan…the operative word being ‘can’. But he can only be a generalist. And like in cricket, the bits & pieces kind of players rarely make it to the top – even among all rounders, its the exceptional ones who are match winners. So those Account Management folks who truly lead the brand (whose accounts moved with the account person) were rare 20 years ago and are rare today.

But there’s no denying one fact. The quality of ‘senior’ Account Management folks (Account Director & above) was far superior about 2 decades ago. They were the ones who commanded respect from both the CEO at the agency side to the rookie junior AE in the agency. Ask me, I was the junior AE then. This is not a ‘back in those days things were glorious’ nostalgia trip. Of course, there have always been mediocre people with plain average talent or mere passengers in the business and there will always be. But the good ones back then (at a comparable level of experience) were heavy weights – in terms of their knowledge of business and respect earned.

You just have to look at the good Account Management-bred CEOs of agencies today – the hold they had with clients as Account Directors back then, is what made them CEOs & business leaders today. I would attribute it to the holistic grounding they had – an exposure to all aspects of the business, including media planning & buying – when they joined the business. Back when unbundling of specialist services was nit in vogue, back when 15% commission was still the industry norm. Sadly, today many of the account leaders (with 7-10 years of experience) are the ones who ‘look at the planner whenever a strategic question is asked, and stare at the creative when we need to recommend a creative route‘. Less said about their exposure & grasp of media the better. Today, I am ashamed that an agency CEO knows more about media – be it the big picture media planning concepts, optimal media spends required in a market for a given category, the cost of a 10-sec spot on IPL or the TRP of a popular programme – than I do. So is it all the Account Manager’s fault? Perhaps not. It’s the ability of the industry to train the Account Management folks and be what we want them to be.

But no denying what Babita’s article mentioned: the change begins with us. As always, it will be the handful of exceptional people in the Account Management business today who will ‘get’ what Babita was trying to say and make amends. The rest will be just happy to drift along.

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  1. Account Management's work motto of late can be summed up in the words of a famous yesteryear's song, "Jo tumko ho pasand wahi baat karenge. Tum Din ko agar Raat kaho Raat kahenge!!!"

    I agree with you though, we need a timely industry intervention to correct the abysmal state of affairs. Also very importantly be the change you want to see irrespective of the scenario around you. In the meanwhile maybe the words to this very soulful Rafi song may help "Main zindagi ka saath nibhata chala gaya, har fiqr ko duhaye mein udata chala gaya……." 🙂

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