Simon Gwynn
Aug 5, 2020

Is the role of account management really under threat?

Reaction to a new industry suggesting agencies should give careful thought to discipline to secure its long-term future.

Account management: is it like the role of conductor in an orchestra?
Account management: is it like the role of conductor in an orchestra?

Account management is at risk of losing its relevance and value, the UK's Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA) has warned in a new report.

The pressure marketers are under to deliver return on investment has made it inevitable that they will ask questions about the value of specific parts of the services they pay for. If creative agencies are coal mines, creatives are the miners of the operation, hacking out ideas from their own minds to fuel the engines of business growth. The value contributed by other parts of the operation is simply less tangible to some marketers. That’s perhaps why, two years ago, Procter & Gamble’s Marc Pritchard said he wanted creatives to make up three-quarters of the staff at agencies he worked with.

Pritchard might be the top marketer at what was then the world’s biggest advertiser (since overtaken by Amazon), but P&G has a vast and complex marketing operation shared by few other companies – meaning his priorities are not the same as everyone else’s. Coming out of a severe recession, though, every aspect of any given business will need to be actively justified, which is why the recommendations in the IPA’s report should be welcomed, whatever your view on the underlying issue.

Writing on Twitter, Uncommon Creative Studio's Nils Leonard hit back at the idea that account people could ever be surplus to requirements, saying: “No act of genuinely ambitious creativity happens without equally ambitious people that form the partnerships and create the conditions any great idea needs to become reality.”

Both brands and agencies should promote diversity of approach, though – the very reason why diversity of background leads to better results in business. Some creative directors, for example, are likely to work best with a traditional account person acting as the conduit between themselves and the client. Others will thrive on collaborating more directly, creating the need for a different kind of account manager. Smart leaders will pay attention to which ways of working let their people flourish and be open to doing things differently. And smart brand marketers won’t adopt a rigid view of the one kind of model that will deliver the best results, or even value for money.

Nils Leonard, co-founder, Uncommon Creative Studio:

Who’s driving this bus, Jim Kelly would always ask. What he was really asking was who was going to keep this idea moving forwards. Progress is the oxygen of any real creative shop. The ones that create trust, that candidly challenge and fight the unglamorous battles every hour, that make real the vision and ambition of the studio with its brand partners on a daily basis, and that keep heads held high, projects on time and the cash coming in, matter. Whatever name you give this lot, they are not under threat from Covid; the studio or agency that would so quickly sacrifice them certainly is.

Tina Fegent, chief executive, Tina Fegent Ltd:

From president to account executive, I have seen 12 different job titles under the account management section on agencies' fees. Within that, you have senior and junior, and I struggle to understand the real difference between a senior account manager and a junior account director. Clients – both marketing and procurement – are questioning not necessarily the role but the number of people in account management that are involved in clients’ business. They don’t need the multiple layers. They want senior people who understand their business and their requirements, and can translate and manage the agency’s other resources to deliver this. They want counterparts who work alongside them and this is often just one or two people in account management and/or strategy.

Julian Douglas, vice-chairman, VCCP:

For some clients, account management can be seen as an unnecessary luxury, superfluous to the strategic, creative and production processes. I would suggest these clients are working with the wrong agency or at least with the wrong account handlers. In a similar vein, people have questioned whether an orchestra really needs a conductor. They seem important, stood at the front in a sharp suit, waving their hands. But surely the musicians have the instruments and the score before them? If you took the conductor away, could the orchestra not manage on its own?

The conductor doesn’t just keep the beat. He or she is the ultimate communicator, the individual who brings the best out of a hundred musicians, raising their performance to heights they could not achieve without his or her vision and direction. The account handler is the agency conductor. When done well, this role enables everyone to perform at exceptional levels.

Jessica Tamsedge, managing director, McCann London:

Our clients’ brands must trade harder than ever. Commercial impact is prized above all else and agencies must once again prove that this is achieved by leveraging brand, culture and commerce. The very premise of account management is to identify problems that need to be solved. And if we hear “we’ve reduced advertising investment” and ask “how else can your brand play a meaningful role in people’s lives?”, we turn threat into opportunity. The best account managers have earned their seat at a table that is bigger than advertising and the industry would do well to watch and learn.

Polly McMorrow, managing director, Bartle Bogle Hegarty London:

With the world teetering on the brink of meltdown, clients want to review their business goals, strategies and creative at lightning speed. In this unique scenario, there is only one person you want or need to call as a client. It's the person that has guided you through marketing decisions for the past year. It's the person that knows how to squeeze every creative drop out of the agency. It's the person who knows all the shortcuts when having to deal with an inconvenient apocalypse.

Yes, creativity is the reason why agencies exist. But there is an art to partnering and translating that creativity into the appropriate form, at the appropriate time and at the appropriate budget. When the world is in chaos, you only have time to deal with one person. And they work in account management.

Tom Jarvis, founder and managing director, Wilderness:

I think account handling is under threat, but phasing it out can lead to new ways of working. When we set up Wilderness, we worked in-house for several clients, so having account handlers didn’t make sense. We now work both in-house and in a more traditional set-up – but still without account managers.

Now we don’t have them, I can’t ever imagine adding that layer back in. Account management is a set of valuable skills, but these things don’t just have to be done by one person. Our teams are normally made up of a creative, a strategist, a media planner and buyer; the account handling is spread across the team. Our teams are close to clients, the experts are in the room – our staff get direct client exposure and a broader set of skills. It works well for everyone.

Campaign UK

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