Death of the bag carrier

In this guest posting, Sangeeta and William Leach argue why the agency account management function is deeply flawed.

Over-paid bag carriers. Empty suits. Paper pushers. Today’s account person comes in for some pretty tough criticism. Is it all deserved? Probably not. Is there a problem? Definitely.

In the ‘post commission’ era, agencies have generally failed to convince clients to value what they deliver, resulting in being paid ‘by the yard’. Or, as often as not, by the number of account people on the business.

In one recent discussion we had, an agency told us the only way they had to grow their business with a client was to convince them they needed more account people.  That way, they’d get a fee increase and cover more overheads.

Clients tend to further reinforce this issue as they support their man on the inside, despite the fact that, increasingly, that person does little more than basic project management.

This is leading to the role becoming more unattractive to new entrants to the industry and increasing dissatisfaction amongst many of the people already in the job.

It wasn’t always so.  The account executive job was once massively desired and extremely rewarding.  It attracted the very best people from the very best universities, who developed rewarding client relationships, understood the client’s business, inspired great work and grew the agency’s business.

So what’s gone wrong? Put simply, the role has become increasingly complex and at the same time increasingly unclear.

Firstly, along came account planners.  Initially this was a re-badged research department but as the account planning role developed it undermined the strategic value of the suit.  No longer was the account person the trusted advisor to the client. Nor, necessarily the person that understood the client’s business the most.

So the account executive’s role became more of a sales person, or ‘account manager’ in the true sense of the words outside advertising, where the account manager is responsible for managing an account relationship and ensuring a sale.

But times moved on.  Creative people, once shy, reserved genius’s kept away from the client, crept out of the back rooms to become engaging representatives of the company, selling their own work.  You only need to look at legendary names like John Hegarty and, closer to home and more recently, Dave Droga.

Creatives now often have the relationship with the client and sell the work. What’s left? Seeing the work seamlessly through the agency? Contact reports and estimates? Keeping the client ‘happy’?

To compensate for the vagueness of the role and increasingly ill-defined contribution, account people are given extraordinary titles to keep them believing they are progressing in their career.

More than one agency with which we have worked has seven (yes 7!) levels of account person, with titles ranging from junior account executive, through several ‘layers’ until SAD, GAD and even BAD – it’s titles gone mad.

Title proliferation has encouraged the pursuit of ‘status’ rather than the pursuit of brilliance. And it is this, more than anything else, that is undermining the respect account handlers once had.

There is no doubt that there are some inspirational account managers working in agencies today – but far too few.  And the few there are, aren’t fussed about their title, just about the outcome of their efforts.

Is account management past its sell by date?  In its current form, yes.

Is there a role for account management in the modern agency? Yes.

Can account management be a job with meaning again? Yes.

So, what should the modern agency do about account management?

We advise agencies attempting to future proof themselves, increase margins and motivate better people to even better performance to recognise the importance of the ‘roles’ of account people more than their titles and designations.

It is time agencies accepted that the role of the account person is overly complex and, to some extent, confused.  On the one hand, the role requires conscientiousness, organisation and systematic effort. On the other, vision, strategy and entrepreneurship.

These require a balance of left and right brain brilliance rarely found in one individual.

The role needs to be split.

Agencies need to recognise that sales is a key role often not ‘owned’ by anyone. Account management in its simplest, most effective form should be tasked with growing revenue and selling work. Having great client relationships, a strategic mind and the ability to inspire and manage teams are essential to that job description.

Ensure those tasked with delivering the agency’s product ‘on-time, on-budget’ for clients are those who enjoy this task – people motivated by being brilliant organisers. Enter project management for faultless execution and timeliness.

Looked at another way, we encourage agencies to understand who in their agency are responsible for delivering revenue (and revenue growth) versus those responsible for delivering margin (and margin growth). And task them with doing just that.

We have helped some local agencies significantly lift their margin, and their people’s spirit, by helping match peoples’ skills to the appropriate roles.

There are also examples of agencies outside Australia trying things differently. Mother has successfully built one of the best agencies and creative cultures in the world by being one of the first to abolish account handlers.

Mother didn’t abolish the roles account people in other agencies performed, they just abolished the title and re-organised around their ‘four-point’ model with ‘Mothers’ performing the task of shepherding the work profitably through the agency, while planners and creatives engaged the client and sold the work.

As part of Goodby’s re-invention in San Francisco, the account management role is being split between account management (responsible for content development) and account operations (responsible for content delivery). Crispin Porter calls the latter ‘content managers’ – people whose job it is to project manage the agency’s work.

It is important that this change isn’t just a title change. There are agencies in Australia who have simply re-badged account management (for example, as content management) but haven’t really changed the role. This won’t work.

The easiest way to abolish the ambiguity of the modern account man is to abolish account management in its current form; to reorganise and to focus people on their passions – passion for great work, passion for organisation, passion for business, strategy, customers and consumers.

There’s unlikely to be an over-paid bag carrier in such an organisation.

Sangeeta Leach and William Leach, The Leach Partnership


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