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What role is the most expendable in your agency?

You need people to create the “things.” You need people to come up with the strategy and people to manage the projects -- to make sure “things” get done. You need people to manage the company to deal with hiring and finances, and you need people to sell your services.

So where does that leave people who control accounts? Do account people even have a role in a modern agency?

The answer is “yes,” according to Robert Solomon, the founder of Solomon Strategic and the author of The Art of Client Service.

But there’s a caveat: Account people need to first take back control. We’re not talking about a coup d'état, rather they need to reclaim their position by better understanding what their role is and where their value lies.

How Account Management Has Changed

Things used to be more “simple.” There were a set number of channels dominated by broadcast, print, outdoor, and direct mail.

While it’s a cliché to even say that the introduction of digital changed advertising and marketing, it’s true and relevant when considering the role of account managers in modern agencies. Account managers used to be able to manage and communicate with clients about a set number of channels. Now, there are so many channels and tactics it’s increasingly difficult for someone to be able to first understand and then intelligently communicate about all the different forms of communication.

In addition, there’s been an erosion of the discipline as other agency departments have been added or grown in power.

Account management used to do strategy; now planning departments control this function. Account management once was in charge or execution; now project managers maintain timelines and deadlines.

“All of a sudden, account people's responsibilities became circumscribed,” Solomon said. “Clients would look at account people and sort of say well you know if I've got a question on the strategy, I'll talk to the planning folks. If I've got a question on a budget or a schedule, I'll talk to the project management folks. So what do the account people actually do? What value are they providing? I think this has become kind of a legitimate question for advertising and marketing firms to sort of address.”

Solomon has had hundreds of conversations with agency founders, CEOs, planners, creatives, and account people, which led him to identify five main problems plaguing the role:

  1. Account people are unclear on their roles.
  2. Account people’s failure to communicate -- internally and with clients -- is a concern.
  3. Clients seek ideas from account people but are frustrated by their absence.
  4. Account people struggle to get budgets, schedules, and scopes right.
  5. Account people need to do a better job managing client expectations.

One agency he worked with described their account people as "glorified meeting schedulers" in an effort to explain their dismay at the problems they saw with the role in their own company. Now, is this something agencies should hold on to as margins shrink and clients cut budgets?

Is Account Management Dead?

Account managers don’t control strategy. They don’t control the execution or creative. They don’t control budgets or timelines. They even can’t answer most of the questions about strategy, execution, or scope asked by clients.

So is the account management role dead?

“It’s not dead because relationships matter,” Solomon said. “Clients genuinely care about operating with their agencies not on a transactional basis, a buying and selling mentality, but in a relationship-based way.”

Solomon says that instead of lamenting the fact that account managers have lost power and control, they should instead reclaim their voice in the conversation. The account manager’s voice needs to be the voice of accountability.

“You really want to be an advocate for doing work that is in the best interests of your client, which in some cases, isn't necessarily something the clients will automatically agree with,” Solomon said. “There's often a divergence between the client's point of view and the agency's point of view, but if you've done a reasonably good job of forging a relationship with the client, where the client likes you, respects you, and above all trusts you, you can more successfully than not advocate the agency's point of view without in any way alienating the client or undermining your relationship.”

How Account Managers Can Reclaim Their Place

Account managers need to move from the response that “that’s not my job” to “I’ll get an answer for you on that question.” They need to be what Solomon’s colleague once told him, “second best at everything.” Account people don’t need to be the best at creative or at strategy or at project management, but they should strive to be the best at understanding all the pieces of the puzzle, and most importantly, how they fit together.

To be second best at creative, Solomon provides a few lessons:

1) Follow William of Occam’s rule.

The simplest answer is most often the correct answer. As Steve Jobs said, “Simple can be harder than complex: you have to work hard to get your thinking clean and make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.

2) Learn how and which questions to ask.

Ask “Why can’t we try X?” or “What if we did this instead?”

Observe your clients, your clients’ customers, your agency team members, everything. Clients want insights – be present when there’s one waiting for you to uncover.

3) Master your craft.

Be disciplined in your approach. Creative insights can come at any time, and constraints and processes can help to you to harness your creativity. Solomon cites a quote from Jake Gyllenhall who said, “… freedom is on the other side of discipline.”

In addition, Solomon suggests that account managers become second best -- if not the expert -- at execution, which starts with scoping projects. If they mess up this essential step at the beginning of any project, you’ll have missed deadlines, out of scope work, added costs to the client, and an overall poor experience for everyone.

Solomon pointed to the broken windows theory, a controversial theory enacted in the 1980s and ‘90s in New York. The basis of the idea is that if you work to prevent and control small crimes, the rate of more devastating and serious crimes will go down.

This theory has applications in the agency world as well.

“If you do the simple, obvious things right, you will reduce client frustration and increase client satisfaction,” said Solomon. Those small things include elements such as preventing scope creep by properly defining what the project includes and what it does not, properly estimating the project, creating realistic and achievable timelines, responding to communication clearly and promptly, running a meeting effectively, and being proactive about issues.

If account managers are unorganized and inattentive -- if they can't get these things right -- they can ruin a relationship no matter how great your agency's creative is or how impressive the results of a campaign are. 

“It's like death by a thousand paper cuts,” Solomon said. “You keep screwing up these little things, and they accumulate, and clients get incredibly frustrated.”

Sometimes, it's the simple things that make the biggest impression -- and this is where account people can prove their worth.  

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Originally published Nov 16, 2015 9:00:00 AM, updated July 28 2017