Are Account Managers Still Relevant?

dinosaurLong gone are the days when account managers did nothing more than schmooze clients and play golf. Such luxuries now are reserved for celebrations when agencies deliver the results they promised to the client, instead of the daily indulgences portrayed on Mad Men.

Lately, you’ve had more and more clients demanding immediate, direct access to all members on their brand team — creative directors, video editors, website developers, copywriters, media buyers. (No more of this “hiding behind” the account manager.) From a process standpoint, that can be very liberating and efficient in the mad-paced agency world we work in. On the other hand — is operating without an account manager as effective for the client? All of which begs the question:

Have account managers become dinosaurs in suits?

Two Philosophies

There are two schools of thought in the industry. One says account management is more important now than ever before. The other claims it’s morphed into two very different roles.

Both positions have merit. In the end, only you can decide which approach will work best for your agency and your clients.

POV 1: Account Managers Are Keystones

We use the word “keystone” deliberately. The keystone is a wedge-shaped piece of stone that is placed last and in the center of an arch. The ancient Romans perfected the arch to be able to withstand enormous amounts of weight. The secret? Concrete. (Yes, the Romans invented concrete.) Without the Roman arch, we would not have Notre Dame Cathedral, Westminster Abbey, the Taj Mahal, or the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. -- among countless others.

Account managers (AMs) are the keystones for every brand team they manage. They provide the strategic leadership, direction, and inspiration that is the concrete holding the brand team together. AMs are first and foremost the brand’s champion — going so far as to challenge the client whenever his direction could take the team off-brand or off brief.

We all know that a client can and will access each of the brand team members individually — there’s no way to stop that (we’re also not saying that’s bad). The catch is that all too often there are lots of cooks on the client side, any of whom can inadvertently take an agency team member off-track, thus increasing costs, and even delaying the work. With all the fast-moving pieces involved in modern marketing, if there’s no account manager to keep her eye on the client’s strategy and results, these behaviors can quickly stall forward progress and descend into chaos.

A great AM keeps the brand team focused on achieving desired results and cultivating a strong and healthy relationship. Which is a heck of a lot more than ensuring good financial operating margins — think developing a deeply trusting relationship that can weather any crisis.

AMs are at their best when they’re entrepreneurial. They take the initiative to view their client’s business holistically, understanding its challenges and constraints yet seeking out and offering winning opportunities to the client. They’re full of ideas, passionate about the brand, adept at influencing clients to take calculated risks at the right time and herding the brand team cats toward the end goal. Top account managers are lauded for transforming their agencies into best-of-breed players.

POV 2: Split Account Management In Two

Trying to have one person be good at two radically different jobs is akin to asking a dachshund to turn into a pit bull at the drop of a hat — or so the proponents of this POV believe. The two roles? Boiled down from multiple sources, they are: brand strategist and brand tactician.

The roles require opposite skill sets that complement each other. A strategist takes the long-term, 50-foot view while a tactician gets something done now with what’s at hand. Strategists revel in the abstract. Tacticians pour and spread concrete.

Tim Williams, of Ignition Consulting Group, points to clients’ never-ending complaints as the catalyst for breaking the traditional account management role into two. He says, “There’s simply no way agencies are going to be able to improve in this area simply by trying harder. There aren’t enough hours in the day for an account executive to manage 30 projects, respond to 120 emails, and participate in 10 phone calls AND also provide a constant flow of proactive ideas to their clients (the chronic complaint). Even if there were such super humans who possessed these two VERY different skill sets, they simply wouldn’t have the time.”

In this type of agency, unfettered from overseeing daily project management tasks, the Brand Strategist is now free to do what he does best: explore the client’s industry, get to know the client’s business in-depth, seek out those opportunities, and bring those big ideas to the client. He is the brand steward, crafting the creative brief, and working with the brand team to keep them from going off track so they stay true to the brand. He’s curious, open-minded, flexible, somewhat idealistic, a tad analytic, passionate, and articulate — highly perceptual, he’s able to connect the dots between his ideas and how they morph into opportunities that can work for the client.

In contrast, a Brand Tactician is responsible for project managing the team and ensuring that all the thousands of pieces fit together and are delivered on time and on budget. He deals with the constant barrage of client communications and misfires that happen when clients mistakenly send agency members off on tangents. A brand tactician’s middle name is “organization.” He’s precise, on top of things, comfortable with schedules and numbers, adeptly badgers his team, and enjoys the challenge of managing creatives because he secretly admires them. He’s a “people person” by temperament yet is strongly self-disciplined and realistic.

Bob Sanders, Sanders Consulting Group, says that “Clients are thinking about marketing differently, and you [agencies] have to think differently as well. To them marketing is tactical. And tactical is measured on achieving results, fast delivery and staying on budget. So anything that keeps you from delivering on their tactical-oriented measurements needs to go.” That’s because he feels clients don’t view ad agencies as important partners in helping them meet their sales and marketing goals.

If that’s true (and we’re not saying it is), or you agree with that premise, then it makes sense to have two different roles you can assign depending upon the needs of each client.

But Wait — A Whole New Model

Yet change is ever on the horizon and here’s one that may flip the whole agency business model on its head. Lately lots of upstart, young agencies are crowdsourcing creative. In such an agency, the role of account management becomes crucial because of the need to strategically drive the brand, keep the client account relationship strong, and manage all those creative sources toward an end result.

There are those who claim that maintaining a permanent in-house creative team is no longer as effective as crowdsourcing. It’s less just about keeping costs down (although that’s certainly a part of it) and more about tapping into a greater spectrum of creative minds at the drop of a hat. With such a business model rapidly catching fire, don’t be shocked if this is the future of advertising.

Your Vision

It all comes back to the vision for your agency. What kind of agency do you want to be? What kind of relationship do you want to have with your clients? What kind of clients do you want? What will they want from you? What kind of work do you want to do and be known for?

When you have the answers to those questions, you’ll be in a better position to determine the role of account management in your agency. Who knows? You might even come up with something even more innovative and smarter than what we’ve outlined here.

arch image source:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Keystone_(architecture)#mediaviewer/File:Arch_voussoirs.svg

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