As an agency citizen not in Account Services, it’s a little maddening to hear account managers sometimes refer to “my client” or imply they have more skin in the game because they “own” the client relationship. It’s never that overt, of course, and some of my favorite agency folks are in Account Services. My guess is that their perspective comes from the abject pressure of trying to stay on top of everything about the client—from their vision to their marketplace to that direct mailer that should have already dropped.
Any agency looking for more than a supplier relationship with its clients these days should be carefully rethinking its account leadership talent mix. It has always been pretty easy to separate account management responsibilities from creative duties (although inside every Pete Campbell there’s a Don Draper dying for some daylight; I’m not so sure the opposite is true!). I think, though, that as agencies strive to keep a seat at the client’s strategy table while also making sure that assignments move through the execution process, it may be time to divvy up account leadership to ensure that all masters are appropriately served.
From a strategy perspective, understanding the competing voices of the customer, the marketplace, the brand and the client have never been more important. Big creative ideas support integrated marketing efforts that help solve business problems, but they’re not the solutions. Keeping a continual eye on where the puck is headed (to borrow from Wayne Gretzky) from customer, market and brand perspectives—in terms of trends analysis, on-going insights and strategic planning—is more than a full-time job. Add in juggling multiple tactical assignments in various stages of completion while maintaining regular consultative support and it’s no wonder that account executive turnover is high and burnout is higher.
For agencies that haven’t already figured out that dividing and conquering is worth the handful of extra hours on a job, here’s an approach to consider:
- Make your account leadership the conductor in the agency orchestra, not a one-man band. Inside the agency, the account manager is responsible for representing the voice of the client. For the client, the account manager is responsible for representing the agency and bringing the right team members to the table as needed to ensure indispensability. The account manager is the focal point for the agency-client relationship and the broker for all activities, but not the sole provider of any offering.
- Develop an insights, strategy and planning practice that can keep the account manager and creative director skating where the puck is headed. Demand that this practice result in on-going insights into the intricate and ever-changing relationship between customer, market and brand. Account managers need to be getting briefed, not trying to stay in front of every single occurrence of importance to their client. If your organization isn’t willing to invest in this effort for a client, it’s time to find clients that are worth the investment (or start shopping your resume to more enlightened agencies).
- Create an Office of Project Management and turn tactical execution over to dedicated project managers. A good project manager will recoup any strategic investment tenfold. It is impossible to watch the forest and the trees. Let your account manager worry about the forest; profit or loss is determined in the trees. Project managers are equal partners with account managers and strategy teams. They have client contact and maintain an open ear for new strategic thinking that can result in a better overall execution.
Margins are too thin to place the burden of client management, customer-market-brand intelligence and project throughput on the shoulders of a single position (even if you dedicate multiple people to the position). Specialization of labor has worked pretty much since humans started clanning up. The best, most profitable client relationships to be had today require a team effort.
If you’re worried you’re going to lose your job or become irrelevant because the “whole” this approach creates is vastly greater than the sum of its parts (all of which used to be you), it’s probably time to change careers. If you try to carry all the water yourself with a marketing client in 2011, you’re likely to find yourself with a sore back, an empty bucket and wet feet. And the marketer will still be really thirsty.