Ad agency account management: the new challenges
There were some strong reader comments over at LinkedIn regarding my article ‘The ad agency account executive: soon to be extinct?‘. A commenter felt that the article ‘fails to appreciate the role quality account people play as a business partner to clients, relationship manager (internal & external), sales person (growing business for the agency) and financial custodian (turning a profit).’ Some of the comments pointed out account management is still relevant and that they need to be positioned as business managers rather than just mere coordinators. Some said that the era of account manager as postman is long gone and today’s account folk do add value. Yes, some do. I admit that my article came across as predicting the extinction of account management as a function in the ad industry though I did say that good account managers tend to be great brand managers, communicators, strategists and catalysts for great work. On hindsight, maybe I should have emphasised that for a certain kind of account manager these are difficult days.
During my early years in advertising, the fundamental structure of the agency itself was different. Unbundling of services had not kicked in (and digital wasn’t around) so media planners & buyers, direct marketing folk and many other specialists would sit under one roof. The average AE had the scope to interact and learn from such specialists and was expected (and able to) contribute to media and creative development. If the client’s work demanded direct response advertising, s(he) was able to lead and guide that too with a basic understanding of direct marketing concepts. So whether it was print production, radio or film production the Account Executive had a much larger scope to be hands on with the project. Of course, the good ones had above -average skills in consumer and client management (an important skill), project and people management.
Everything changed with unbundling of services and proliferation of specialist units (some independently housed and functioning). Some of the specialist units hived off over the years include: media planning & buying, direct marketing, design, event or experience management, digital & social media, retail & merchandising. My limited point is this: it is impossible for an advertising account manager to keep a tab on all the marketing activities of a brand across specialist disciplines. Very often s(he) does not have the simple access to them all. The typical AE is unlikely to have any knowledge of media investment decisions, for example. Media agencies nowadays have gone beyond number crunching and buying – they act as ‘creative’ agencies too initiating media properties, planning & executing digital campaigns and so on. In such discussions it is rare to find the AE on the account (from the ‘mainline’ agency – for lack of another term) as s(he) is kept out of the discussions simply because of the independent nature of such specialist units. Ditto with digital & social media work. In that context, I had rued the existence of the ‘postman’ and ‘coordinator of a limited set of activities mainly film production’ mindset of the account person.
Large network agencies now have specialist units for a single client (e.g. Ford). There are global businesses too handled by the network agency across many country offices. In such cases the Business Head (often an account management person) plays a critical role by design. But not every agency has such a client profile. Your average retail account in an agency will not have such a structural environment. In such cases, the role of a the account person – as someone who initiates and executes business building work, is a catalyst for great creative, prudent media investments and smart buzz-generating content across platforms, nurtures the account relationship into a mutually profitable one – is the ideal account management role.
Such roles were once performed by the agency CEOs whose client-in-chief was the CEO from the client side.
Another related factor contributing to the difficult situation of agencies is the remuneration factor. Clients tend to pay rock bottom prices but expect top of the line people & service. Agencies aren’t united enough to demand a fair price and often pitch their ideas free to clients. So agencies are also to be blamed for the vendor positioning and the difficult place they are in. The seat at the strategy table with the CXOs is often taken by strategy consultants. Poor agency remuneration, lack of systematic training in ad agencies in honing skills (especially in media & digital) because of their inability to invest in such means it is up to the average AE to hone his or her skills. In that context, I had ranted previously about about account management having to add value to the process of advertising creation by improving their skill sets or perish.