‘Free Account Management? Really?’ – Tony Spong and Vicky Gillan

Agency leaders have admitted to us that the account management function has become the one most squeezed, not only in being sacrificed in terms of fees, but also a distinct loss of status and relevance brought about by elements traditionally associated with the role parcelled up and redistributed across other, newer functions with, crucially, no new focus added back in, to the point that we have the question being uttered above. But is that what clients really want?

We know that as clients and agencies grapple with an ‘always on’ world, it is becoming harder for clients to specify and then stick to a scope of work which, in turn, makes it difficult for agencies to shape a team around the client. It is, therefore, completely understandable that there has been an inevitable focus on agility and speed to market, which explains why there is so much focus on delivery and the growth of effective project management. Indeed, many agencies now have a Chief Operations Officer to head up the delivery side.

However, what clients don’t want is this sense that their agency is always trying to sell them another capability without much thought about how to simplify things, understand the best combinations of channels and be that bit broader in their answers to a problem. If, as a client, I only have an hour and I now have three parts of the agency to meet that leaves 20 minutes each so, in fact, the relationship will start to slide. Significantly, this is manifesting itself in more pitches being called because ‘no one understands my business’.

Imagine walking down your high street and popping into one restaurant for your starter and then going into another for your main course, a third for your dessert and a fourth for your coffee. For many clients it feels more and more like this and perhaps it’s time we just had one kitchen, several menu options and one front of house team who know what’s in season; what to recommend from the menu and how you like it and what wine goes best with what.

Clients articulate this ‘front of house’ team as one that has a greater commercial awareness of their business; someone that has their best interests at heart and can see what’s coming down the road.  Isn’t this the account lead? And yet in pitches what do we see? The account handler doing the last 5 minutes armed with a Gantt chart and an organogram!

So, on the one hand, agencies have moved to deliver ‘faster and cheaper’ but on the other they have perhaps lost too much of the forward looking entrepreneurial part of the role which equals the ‘better’.

Agencies are beginning to respond to this challenge. They are creating core ‘hubs’ made up of lead planner, creative and account lead supported by inner rings and outer rings of capability that offer a potential solution to clients on how their account might work, giving access to specialists and project management to ensure seamless execution.

But, crucially, the function missing from the supporting ‘rings’ is account management. There is no communication or process that shows how this will all be glued together; no chart extolling the virtues and value of these commercially savvy people to the client – the ones who will question, challenge, create the business case, drive integration, spot commercial opportunities …. This is a real missed opportunity.

Discussing this issue with senior agency heads at a recent AAR event, we asked the question if the role was still needed, never mind give it away for free, and the answer was a resounding ‘yes’. So, as new models and structures evolve, we need to think hard about how we go about redefining and valuing this role to match the new (or dare I say it continued) client needs.

What could this ‘new’ version look like? An article spotted in Ad Age put it like this:


Executive experienced in data, digital, social, search, media, creative, PR, events, shopper marketing, programmatic, mobile, print and outdoor. The ability to simultaneously and efficiently handle up to dozens of stakeholders (often with competing interests) a must. Successful candidate is skilled in managing up, down and balancing a P&L. Old school thinkers need not apply.

Sounds interesting? If you say ‘yes’, then we move onto the next set of issues that need resolving.

First, we are hearing more and more that there is a shortage of account people per se never mind with the right skill set. As a result, more and more senior managers are being drafted in to be more hands on with clients. This is not a sustainable situation, of course, given the implications on client’s expectations and fee run rate.

Secondly, people joining agencies first go through Project Management/Delivery type roles and those that love it, stay and those that don’t seem to move, anecdotally, into planning. That’s a problem when ultimately the skill set and behavioural need for the account management function is fundamentally different and needs its own training and mentoring path.

Thirdly, when it comes to promoting someone into an Account Director level role, the step change from seeking a bigger project to play with to building a relationship with a client and understanding the wider commercial agenda of that client seems to be too stretching. This then adds to the confused perception of what the account management function role, remit and value is.

Finally, the workforce is fundamentally changing. Many people get to their late 20’s and make the decision to go off travelling as the prospect of getting a mortgage fades into the distance. So just when you need the senior Account Manager/Account Director talent pool to be at its ‘largest’, it’s the opposite. This creates a big talent shortage just when they are needed most.

In summary, we have a lack of people on the one hand but, more significantly, a pipeline of the wrong skill sets suggesting we need to put some structural changes in place, and fast. This must start right from day 1 of the agency recruiting for the account management function with a bespoke development and career path.

So, back to our ‘Wanted’ ad above. What skill sets is this new breed of account handler going to need? Combining our experience and the insights from our senior agency event, we would advocate the following:

1.      Entrepreneurship:

Agencies must value the role more and investing in a new breed of entrepreneurs who, by growing their client’s business, help grow the agency, too.

2.      Leadership: 

It must be about leadership of a client’s business and the ability to grab the client’s business by the scruff of its neck, make clear recommendations, shape the agenda, simplify the issues, challenge appropriately to deliver what the client needs as well as wants.

3.      Curiosity:  

Curious about the past, present and future with the gumption and knowledge of knowing where and when to dig further and when to bring in other experts.

4.      Passion:

Passionate about the client’s business, about the plan, the agenda, about success and learnings.

5.      Collaborative:

Brilliantly organised, a natural networker, instinctively collaborative and an outstanding communicator to ensure that specialists within the agency, across the roster and working with the clients team are used at the right time and in the right way.

What no one expects is for account management to be an ‘expert’ in everything.

Knowledgeable, absolutely.

Skilled at asking the right questions, totally.

Informed, always.

We appear to be at a cross roads. Agencies need to invest in and show their value for the account management function. Clients need to see the difference for them to start to highly value the function. We think it’s worth the time and discussion.

Tony Spong and Vicky Gillan

Managing Partners, AAR