The ad agency account executive: soon to be extinct?

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The role of an account executive has been a butt of jokes for decades. At best, it is seen as a coordinator’s role as highlighted in the book ‘Ogilvy on advertising’. The account executive is commonly teased about not being a ‘doer’ – actual creator of the advertising product.

In his book Insanely Simple, Ken Segall recounts this anecdote:

There’s a story from the early days of Macintosh back at Chiat/ Day, when one of the agency guys eagerly introduced himself to Steve Jobs on the set of a shoot.

“What do you do at the agency?” Steve asked.

“I’m an account guy,” he replied.

“Oh, so you’re overhead,” said Steve.

The good ones in account management go on to become agency heads primarily because they’ve gone beyond mere coordinators from early on in their career in account management. They tend to be great brand managers, communicators, strategists and catalysts for great work. But a majority are happy to play the role of coordinators or at best facilitators.

The industry scenario has changed dramatically over the past decade or so. Clients are increasingly interacting directly with advertising specialists – media planners & buyers, creative teams, commercial film directors. What’s more, very often, such specialists are good in understanding the business of brands and strategy. In my view the best creative minds are ‘planners’ first – they instinctively know what is right for the brand and articulate that very well. In today’s scenario the role of an account person is increasingly getting marginalised because of clients dealing with a plethora of such specialists. The average account person in an ‘mainline’ agency is kept out of discussions on media strategy & buying, social media activities, PR and more as all of them are happening through different teams. The activities happening through the ‘mainline’ agency which the account person oversees are largely television spots and sales collateral. Of course, there will be exceptions where the account team coordinated brand activities across media, digital, TV, print and more but I am talking about the most likely norm.

Another development where the role of account management is nil is the proliferation of content teams outside ad agencies. Media houses, new media platforms like Facebook, brands like Marriott and a few others have in-house content development teams. They either work on the company brand (like Marriott) or solve business problems through creative for a set of clients (like the Facebook Creative Shop). In such teams, specialist ’doers’ like creative, digital and media folk from ad agencies are sought after. Generalists like account managers – especially the coordinator kind have no role.

In the years to come, account manager as a mere coordinator will have little relevance and face extinction. I feel they will have to add value to the process of advertising creation by improving their skill sets or perish. The areas in which skill sets can be improved could be:

– becoming better at Marketing: thinking and behaving like a marketing person at the client side by taking ownership of the brand’s direction and implementing strategies for business growth. This means being thoroughly knowledgeable about the client’s company, the brands and the competition.

– being knowledgeable about media strategy and buying: clients value the inputs of media, research, planning, creative and the film team more than that of an account team perhaps. Since most of the big agencies have a specialist media unit, it’d help if the agencies train account management teams in the basics of media planning and expose them to media discussions as much as possible

understanding how various digital platforms and tools work in brand building: just as swimming cannot be learnt by reading a book, I believe account folk must delve personally into digital by getting familiar with the various tools. It could be as simple as maintaining a blog, writing a Slideshare presentation or being active on social media – they must be familiar with the latest developments and how to use them for brand building. This means being familiar with how a mobile can or cannot fit into the overall scheme of things for the brand, being aware of latest trends in technology which impact marketing communication and so on

– being a ’T’ person: ‘The new Creative Person is T-shaped‘ said Luke Sullivan (author of ‘Hey Whipple, Squeeze This‘ and ex-agency Creative) in an intriguing manner. The concept he put forth was interesting: T-shaped is just a funny name used to describe a person who has very deep skills in one area (the deep vertical stroke of the T) as well as the ability to collaborate across disciplines they’re not an expert in (that would be the horizontal stoke). The core skill of an account person will have to be marketing and not ‘project management’.

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