If the recent Campaign article, summarising the IPA's report on The Future of Account Management, is a true reflection of where we are, it paints a bleak picture indeed. It's no secret to anyone that the role needs to evolve, the question is, into what? No-one has defined its future—as of yet.
This topic is near and dear to my heart. Not simply because I've built my career around it, recently joining one of the largest agencies in the world as its first global chief client officer, but also because I'm passionate about growing client relationships, and specifically, growing clients' business. And within the realm of account management, two truths remain: it is still about building client relationships and enabling the agency's best work.
The only way agencies succeed is if their clients succeed. Account management is successful when both the client and agency thrive. There is tremendous, and unprecedented, pressure on clients today. And for agencies, and their account management teams, this means adapt and grow—or die.
Covid-19 has further primed both clients and agencies for change. It is now time to reframe account management around client growth, rather than just the agency's bottom line. Incentivising client leads, to focus on the client's business success, is good business for everyone.
Here are five ways to set up client leads as strategic growth partners of the future:
Think business first
Clients need partners who can think strategically and see the big picture. Partners who understand the challenges the client is facing and are able to help identify strategies for new or faster growth. This means fully immersing yourself deep into the client's business, co-locating and co-creating together. Yes, check the stock price of your client's business every morning, but go beyond—be in lockstep with your client, their business needs to be your business.
Have a growth mindset
To lead a client today requires real appetite for learning and discovery. Crafting solutions in an increasingly complex, fragmented and continually evolving marketing ecosystem is really challenging, especially given the wide breadth of specialism and expertise to be considered. Client leads must understand and be up to speed on the full spectrum of marketing, data and tech capabilities to ensure they're bringing the best of the agency at the right time. Being open to, and excited by, continual learning and discovery will set the client, and therefore the agency, up for success.
Embrace change, connectivity, and collaboration
Collaboration is queen. Client leads should be tasked with creating and leading integrated, diverse teams, and designing progressive, new operating models that enable the team to work in an agile and fluid way. This means removing any internal barriers or structural, P&L challenges, to ensure the agency team is organised around what is right for the client, rather than the agency. Creating multidisciplinary team pods, trialling distributed workflows and embracing collaboration technology, recently emphasised during the pandemic, are all ways that will help account management to support clients better. Be sure to take the lessons gleaned from the client team and feed them back into the agency—on a regular basis.
Provide a platform for account management
If the CMO is the voice of the customer, the account lead is the voice of the client. Ensure they have a prominent seat at the agency's leadership table and are fully empowered in their role. Have them constantly share their client's business challenges, views and concerns, not only at the board level, but more broadly to the agency at large. Clients and their business need to be at the top of the agenda. Account management's deep understanding of the client means they should play a key role in shaping the evolution of the agency and its proposition—informing product development and culture.
Incentivise to drive client growth
To be a true growth partner, incentives focused beyond client satisfaction and agency revenue, to the client's business success, should be in place. Find ways to link KPIs of your individual client to your agency team, and not just the account management team—all parts of the agency need to be accountable to clients and have aligned KPIs against delivering client outcomes.
Account management has never been as challenging as it is today. Redefining and incentivising this key role around client business growth will require us to shift gears, invest in our teams and take account management from delivery to a growth mindset.
Cherish and champion our modern-day growth partners, shine a light on one of the toughest gigs in town and convey the value they bring to both client and agency in this new marketing era.
Caroline Foster Kenny is global chief client officer at Wunderman Thompson,