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The account executive, in many agencies, has a confusing role: She must be the client's best friend and advocate. She should represent the firm's values and attitudes. She has to organize and manage projects to completion, allocate resources, and even sell. In addition, she also might need to come up with ideas, set KPIs, and balance budgets. 

You would need multiple personalities, an unbending will of focus, and a few expensive degrees to be able to do well at a role that encompassed all these skills, yet many agency owners believe they can find or even mold a person to take over this role. 

And this approach leads to ruinous results. The success of account executives are intricately tied to the health of the business because they handle the most important part of your business: your client relationships. 

Why the Account Executive Role Is Important

One person who has studied the account executive's role within the agency is David C. Baker, the founder of ReCourses, who provides consulting and resources to agencies on how to better run their businesses.

He found during his initial years of consulting that agencies had hundreds of questions about account service: What’s the right ratio of clients to account managers? Can we hire account managers who work remotely? What should we look for in an individual? He had advice, but it felt flimsy. So in 1998, he undertook his first research project to bring “some rigors of science to the idea of managing agencies.” He polled more than 14,000 principals, managers, and employees originally and has updated the research every three to four years since then.

He found that most staffing mistakes are made within the account service team. It's a difficult position to define and hire for.

Account managers are pulled in two directions at all times, Baker said. On the one hand, they are the ambassadors of the clients. They are responsible for fighting for what the client wants, sometimes against the interests of the agency. But they must also advocate for the agency. They have to upsell and communicate additional costs and decisions from the agency’s side -- all while maintaining a strong relationship.

The glory of winning the account might go to the new business person, but the longevity and health of the account rests on the account exec’s shoulders.

In addition, the account exec is the one who maintains contact with a person or multiple individuals from a team after they leave the brand. Account managers are the ones who follow people from one job to another and help to bring in new business from the client contact getting a new job.

4 Common Problems Found in Account Services

1) A good account person is also a good new biz person so you combine the two roles.

Some agencies don’t have the luxury of hiring a dedicated new business person, so they combine the new business and account service role. 

The problem is that client concerns will always take precedent over business development.

“Account service isn’t more important, but it’s more urgent,” Baker said. “You have this issue with a client. You can solve it and put off business development for another day.”

As most account execs know -- and agency owners should realize too -- there are always client fires to put out. Business development, if not the focus, never happens.

2) There’s no balance of power between clients, account executives, and the agency.

One of the most common issues Baker sees in agencies is that the account managers are too powerful, and they end up always saying “yes” to client requests. There is no internal accountability, budget, timeline, or goals implemented by the agency to force the account exec to push back and balance the requests.

“Agencies are giving time away,” Baker said. And account managers, those on the front lines, are letting it happen because agency leadership is not forcing them to balance the needs of the agency with those of the client.

3) The expert and the account manager are the same person.

“Clients don’t listen to account service people like they want to be listened too because in developed cultures, experts are inaccessible,” Baker said. “We don’t want our experts to be as accessible as account service people are.”

It would be similar to going to an exclusive, highly rated restaurant and finding out that the renowned chef is also your waiter. You’d seriously consider the how well prepared the food will be if the chef is also worried about filling up your water glass. But if the chef deigns to visit your table during the meal to ask you about your experience, you are flattered and excited.

If you are investing in something custom, as most brands are, the people coming up with the strategy and designing and developing the campaigns should be seen as the experts who are being paid to focus on coming up with brilliant ideas and creative. This isn’t to say that the account person cannot come up with strategy or execute on projects. It is all about perception.

“If we don’t have the expert in the background, the agency becomes client-driven, where the agency is just doing what the client wants instead of doing what the agency recommends,” Baker said.

4) You hire people with a project management mindset to be account executives.

Many managers believe that organization skills are one of the most important traits of a great account executive. This is a good skill to have in anyone you hire at your agency, but a person too intent on checking off the to-dos on her list is the opposite of what it means to be a successful account manager.

“The personality profile of an account service manager is somebody who is good at growing the account,” Baker said. “If somebody can’t grow the account, they are not a good account service person.”

People who have a project management mentality are not typically also relationship-focused. They maybe have difficulty building rapport or they miss the social cues that indicate there is a problem because they are too focused on what needs to be done, reviewed, and approved. They are more focused on keeping things on track and not destroying the project than they are on growing the account.

What to Look For in an Account Executive

Based on Baker’s research, which includes personality profiling, he has found that there are a few main qualities to look for in an account manager:

They know how to ask they right questions.

They know how to pull information out from a client that reveals the person’s wants, desires, and needs.

They can sell an idea -- any idea.

They might not come up with the ideas, but they can sell it. They can talk about ideas and intangibles and feel completely comfortable not having data or specifics to discuss.

“It’s the idea of diving into an empty pool and inventing water on the way down,” Baker said.

They can navigate politics and are comfortable with conflict.

This doesn't mean someone who relishes conflict and internal strife. 

“They can send clients to hell and help them enjoy the trip," Baker said. "It's not to hard to help someone enjoy the trip or to send people to hell. But doing both of those together is an amazing skill that account service people have.”

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Originally published Jul 25, 2015 8:30:00 AM, updated February 01 2017