Monday, October 7, 2013

Creative Account Management: the real deal

Account Management is a difficult job and a much maligned role. It is the interface between the marketing client (the fulcrum of all of the client's own internal politics) and the ad agency's system that produces the creative work: traffic, creative teams, strategy, production, implementation.

They are also a human punch-bag.

The client gives them a tough time because they place them in very difficult situations, and expect them to do the impossible, often. Some are downright abusive.

Inside the agency, some of the people they work with think that Account Management are "useless". 

Does your dog bite? Image by cjenjasuwan.

"They just do what the client wants".

"They don't know good work".

"They're more like the client than this client is".

"They don't push back hard enough".

I attended an Eagles breakfast many years ago when the agency CD from Mother London spoke. "We don't have account management", he said to thunderous applause.

Here's how Mother London's Stephen Ledger-Lomas explained it recently: 
"We don't have any account managers. The client can call the designer the creative strategist, they can call the chef if they want. That means there's no hiding places - they are the ones that have to explain their ideas to the client directly. there's no pass the parcel".
Personally - I love that philosophy. Cut down on the layers. Keep it responsive and flexible and accountable. Get the key people close to the client's business. 

But funnily enough, many creatives that I speak to actually don't want to take on that role. They want someone to be the 'buffer'.

So, why the disconnect? Why don't they value this person who's taking the punches for he team?

Because great Account Managers are few.

The person who can be the ideal Account Manager is multi-faceted. They are organised, numerate, diplomatic, have good people skills, are problem solvers, can project manage, are persuasive, are manipulative (in that they have to sometimes get stuff out of people that is almost humanly impossible), are motivational, are good marketers, understand media in all its facets, understand production, understand marketing and consumer behaviour, are strategic, and are creative. They aren't left brained or right brained, they are 'whole brained'.

And that's rare.

Some things have happened to the Account Management role that have worsened their lot. Not just here - globally. 
Ticking boxes isn't everything. Image by Danilo Rizutti
I once asked a colleague from Lowe in London what he thought the problem with Account Management was. He said "People have to stop promoting secretaries". Look, some of my best friends were secretaries, and sometimes that was their only way into the ad business, and they have done well. But often, secretaries get promoted into Account Management because of their organizational skills. Project management. Getting things done. Great. Tick. We need that. 

But that's not all we need.

The vast right brained chunk of what makes a great Account Manager is missing. Enter Strategists.

The strategists became the ones to fill in the gaps between what the project-manager-account-manager could and couldn't do. And great strategists are worth their weight in beluga caviar. But Account Management should not completely outsource this role. As I always say: "strategy is not a person". (As in, "let's call strategy"). It's a way of thinking, and Account Management has to lead, to direct, and contribute to this process, based on their intimate knowledge of the client and the client's business, to which strategists are only exposed every now and then.

So the Account Management role became just a glorious, glorified master of ceremony, bringing in the 'experts' to present to clients, wrapping things up at the end of the meeting and managing the project flow and deliverables.

Because of this, they became detached from the creative work - the real product that they are part of producing. They don't "speak creative". They don't consume great work; they don't read or watch what the creatives are reading or watching. If more Account Managers attended events like the Eagles Breakfast, perhaps there wouldn't be such a divide. The creative output becomes something to meet a deadline or a budget.

Inspire and lead - not manage. Image by KromKrathog
Another part of the problem is in the name. Account Management. It's boring. It says you manage an account. But you don't. You grow it. You inspire it. You inspire those who work on it. You live and breathe the success of it. The term 'Client Service' is even worse, as it implies that you simply service the client, do their bidding. Some clients want, and even demand this.  But, they will never get the best work from their creative resource as a result. 

(Read my analogy of Michael Jackson and his Doctor here to see why a client-agency relationship in which there's no respect for each other's skill-sets is doomed).

Some agencies have experimented with other titles. 'Brand Leader'. 'Communications Director'. And of course the creative eco-system, from which the account manager is banished through their own lack of organic participation, calls them names like 'Client Serpents', 'Client Surplus" or 'Client Serviettes'.

And then, equally polarising, are the terms "Creative Department", and "Creatives". Which means, by inference that other people in the agency are not creative. Which is of course what they should be to work in this business.

Part of the Account Management job is project management, part is marketing, part is strategic, part is creative and part is business, making sure that while the client's business is growing, so is the agency's.

At the end of the day a great Account Manager should live and die by great creative. As Colwyn Elder, head of strategy for Y&R said to me the other day: "it's rugby, not relay". It's as much your work if you're the Account Manager as it is the creative team's. But because the emphasis is on project management, and on handing over the relay baton, so the silos develop and become entrenched. Work, or client relationships get defined in terms like "theirs" or "your".
"My Client doesn't like your work" - accman to creative. Or "Tell creative that there are some changes to their work" - accman to traffic.
 The separateness works both ways: 
"Your client wouldn't know a good idea if it leapt from behind a bush" - creative to accman.
It's not yours, or theirs, or mine. It's ours.

In a fascinating article, Why Conformists are Key to Successful Innovation  in the Harvard Business Review, it shows the impact - good and bad - of too many "conformists" on a team of creative individuals. They are indeed necessary (and helpful) for innovation to be implemented, but they can also be idea killers.

Conformists tend to be the people who know how to get along with others. They know how the system works and they adhere to the rules. They have an eye for which ideas will be accepted by others. 
As you build your team, be careful not to overdo it on detail people, who tend to be risk-averse and uncomfortable with ambiguity. They can squelch nascent ideas. You don’t want the detail people forming a bloc. 
You might get lucky and find creative people who are also conformists. Those people do exist. In our study of 468 people, we found that 7% scored high on two of the three cognitive styles. You might even find creative people who are conformists and detail-oriented. But don’t hold your breath: Just 3% of the people we studied scored high on all three styles. 
And don’t overlook the importance of the people who are “none of the above.” I believe that people who don’t score high on any of the three styles tend to be the ones who form bridges among the creatives, the conformists, and the detail-oriented people. They foster understanding among the different types.

What to do?

An account manager that 'gets it'.
Image by KromKrathog
Seek those rare creatures who are 'whole brained'. Choose Account Managers who are strategically smart and creative and give them project management support. Do this rather than employ project managers, give them strategic support and expect them to go to war for great work. Project managers are always going to be task driven. This is a vitally important skill in an organisation in which the output is time sensitive and money sensitive. But it's not the essence of Account Management. Pure project managers are never going to grow client relationships and contribute to the creative dynamism that inspires brilliance from agencies. Not because they don't want to, they just aren't wired that way.

Find yourself the real deal. The ones that do want to. The ones that consider Creative Account Manager to be the ultimate title.

Adtherapy runs Account Management Workshop and Mentorship programmes for agencies that focus on building leadership capacity in the three most essential areas: Strategic thinking, Creative and Business. Contact Gillian if you need more info on

All images courtesy


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