Old school observations on advertising Account Management

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As a rookie in the early 90s to quitting the business in 2012, I have seen quite a change in the business of advertising. I am sure several aspects of the business have changed in the last eight years too. But some fundamental aspects of the ad business, especially the discipline of ‘Account Management’ would not have changed (and will not change), whether it is the 1960s or the 2020s. Herewith some random observations about the business of Account Management, in no particular order: 

‘It’s only advertising’: It was a casual observation from my boss, meant as a response to me getting too worked up about some delayed artwork, or some such, Maybe it was a typo in an ad that I had sent out. Even though I don’t remember the exact context, that line stuck in my head. Yes, advertising does play a crucial role in commerce by creating brand awareness & preference. It also helps in changing attitudes and behaviour in social issues. But ad agency folks (and clients who engage them) tend to take themselves and the work they produce far too seriously. A doctor performing a life-saving surgery wouldn’t be as tensed as someone in an ad agency who has to send out an ad announcing 10% off on a shampoo brand or a social media post on Women’s Day. 

My ex-boss opened my eyes to the huge gap in revenues between big ad agencies and the clients they serve – in many cases the total annual revenue of the ad agency would probably be equal to a few days of sale for a large client or just one brand. Remember, this was in the early 90s in India, when media agencies were not yet a separate entity and the 15% media commission was still a thing. Agencies conveyed how well they were doing through a notional concept of ‘capitalised billing’ which was obviously a lot more inflated than actual revenues. 

That remark, ‘it’s only advertising’ was not meant to cue that one’s job should be taken lightly or be unconcerned about the quality of work. It was only to put things in perspective – to not be so attached to what one does and allow it to take a toll on one’s mental well-being. But this attitude continues to burn advertising folks from within. I am sure ad agency teams still get a request to create an ‘urgent and important’ ad late on a Friday. A bunch of folks work overnight or on the weekend only to be told on Monday that feedback will take time or have several rounds of changes going on all of next week. Was it really ‘urgent and important’ previous week then? It is not uncommon to have 50-60 TV scripts generated before a fairly straightforward one (before-after, problem solution, celebrity talking head holding pack and walking across screen) is approved after consumer research. The process could take 3-4 months and suck a lifetime out of the ad agency team. In that context, ‘it’s only advertising’ is a valuable remark to remember. 

Most of what is celebrated in ad agency circles with high fives and award trophies is hardly of any relevance to consumers – they don’t care. Advertising does play a role in sales but it is not the only contributing factor. In automobiles for example, several successful cars have had mediocre advertising, whereas there are many brands which have disappeared despite good ad campaigns. Very rarely do we have work produced which becomes part of popular culture. So a measured, balanced approach to the industry’s role, contribution and the significance of that single creative output is called for. 

Account head had command over client and team: as a junior AE, I distinctly remember being awed by the authority my Account Director or Client Services Director had on the account. They commanded absolute respect and loyalty from the team – the former stemming from the realisation that the AD or CSD simply knows everything there is to know about the business of advertising and the clients business. I have heard apocryphal stories of agency Account Directors calling up the client and blasting them for speaking rudely to an agency team member or ticking them off for delayed payments. Very often, the client-in-chief, usually the CMO or even the CEO had an excellent equation with the account head in the agency and saw them as a business partner and treated them like a sounding board. 

Of course, the business itself was different back then – senior folks from both sides were involved in advertising creation. When I became an Account Director I also felt that my equation or command over my clients was not the same or as powerful as those of my bosses when they were in that role. Later when I went on to become a profit centre head and had ADs as part of the team, they too did not seem to have a relationship of equals or partners with senior clients. I know I am generalising but there was something different. What changed? The business itself, for one. The separation of creative and media into specialist agencies, sitting in different offices triggered a change (detrimental to the industry, in my view) which has not been reversed. The account management team was not exposed to critical aspects of the business such as media and what is called ‘digital marketing’. The brand manager became the coordinator of various brand activities rather than the ad agency account managers who have largely been involved in managing film production, print campaigns and any design work such as packaging & in-shop collateral. 

Talent which came into advertising was also different in the 90s. The industry managed to attract a diverse set of folks: hot shot MBAs from top notch management schools, fine arts graduates and so on. Over the years several other industries attracted talent which would have otherwise considered advertising as an option. Writers moved to television, cinema and other arts. FMCG, banking, IT and other industries paid better and attracted B-school graduates. The shift from a commission system to retainer fees (most of which are low) affected margins and ability to pay well. Media & entertainment and later OTT are also seen as great avenues for creativity.

Solve problems, especially business problems – earn respect: the surest way to earn respect from the client is to solve problems for them, especially those which have an impact on the client’s business, which means increasing sales or brand preference. I admit that it takes two to tango and the marketing team at the client’s end should also be willing to see the agency as a business partner, instead of another ‘vendor’. 

Generalist with a fair grasp of all aspects of the business, which is ever changing: the cliche, ‘change is the only constant’ is so true of advertising. The account managers, more than any one else in the team should be aware of this and try to stay on top of current trends & developments in marketing, media & advertising. Back in the days, Direct Response or Direct Marketing was picking up and the AE who understood the basic of that discipline would definitely have an edge over others. Similarly, in 2021 the account person should be knowledgeable enough to guide the client on best practices of influencer marketing, celebrity advertising, digital marketing, branded apps and so on. Admittedly, the ecosystem is a lot more complex than traditional advertising of TV, print, radio & outdoor. But one is not expected to be an expert on everything – but fundamentals of the various aspects of the business is always an asset. You might think it is daunting or impossible to know everything about the business – yes, that’s true. But if you make an effort to keep abreast with the latest developments and know the basics, be it programmatic advertising or anything else, it will help you be a better business problem solver for the client. It is better to position oneself as a good orchestra conductor than just a courier – carrying requests back & forth. 

Great communicators, especially in selling ideas: advertising is persuasion, not science. So it makes sense to work on one’s persuasion abilities which involves communication in group settings, selling an idea or concept to decision makers and such like. It also involves writing well – be it minutes of meeting, an email, a deck or a creative brief. 

The better you write, the higher you go in Ogilvy & Mather. People who think well, write well.


Inspire and respect the creative team: a common trait I have noticed about account management folks who have gone on to lead agencies is that they are great planners and inspire the creative team by providing a direction for ad campaigns. They are good at writing creative briefs and also respect the time & effort put in by the creative team. They are partners in fighting the good fight.

I remember having heard this about a one line Creative Brief for an SUV brand, positioned as a ‘City & Outdoor’ car. Apparently, the brief was: ‘Brute in a tuxedo’.  That line has stuck in my head for eons now. I guess it’s the pithy, biting way the proposition was brought alive.  It ‘s the difference between saying, ‘The Independent – for people who want to make up their own minds’ versus ‘The Independent – not for sheep’. The latter makes it more memorable and is likely to excite the creative team. And then there’s this apocryphal story about an agency Account Director who packed 10 of his colleagues in a car and took them to a client meeting for a brief. They cursed him for the squishy ride naturally. Mid-way through the commute, he got them to sit in a spacious new car. The briefing at the client office was for that car. From that experience, the ‘spacious car’ positioning panned itself out.

Good account management folks also present and defend the creative idea to the client and show as much passion in producing quality work. I don’t really know if the account management team has much leeway in managing crazy deadlines so that maybe too much of an ask in today’s world. 

Any other valuable tips & observations on the art and business of account management? Do comment in. 

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