Scrolling through the thinly-disguised humblebrags and click-hungry agree-a-thons of LinkedIn (honestly, why do I do it to myself?) I was pulled up short by a post that announced: ‘I’m a founder of a creative agency, and I don’t like using account managers’.
Surely this was a wind-up. Unless they were generated by an army of support bots, the post stats seemed to indicate widespread support for an agency model where clients have access to creatives and vice versa, presumably without the meddlesome interference of Account Service. Madness.
I noticed an ex-colleague had simply commented: ‘I couldn’t disagree more.’ Far from being a Suit In A Low Defensive Crouch, this commenter is a Strategist (now also an agency founder). I felt compelled to add my voice to the small, but growing chorus of those in the negative:
‘This Creative Director is forever thankful for the advice, guidance, partnership and yes, sometimes, shielding, that our brilliant Account Service team does for us in the ‘words & pictures' department.’
Huzzah for me, the keyboard defender. But how did we get here? Why are so many people in our industry so eager to discount the work of Account Service and the people who do it? And how do we ensure everyone in the agency gets the recognition they deserve? I have a few ideas:
Adland rarely gives Account Management the credit it deserves.
I'm not going to defend the industry's habit of making things unnecessarily complicated for clients, or even its tendency to be mildly (sometimes wildly) obnoxious on social media. And the industry has a real problem with women in senior management positions, the expectation of unpaid overtime or the mental health effects of unnecessarily stressful work environments. As an industry, clearly, we’ve got some shit to sort out.
We could also do a better job of illustrating how Account Management can be one of the most rewarding jobs in advertising. Working with smart, interesting people (on all sides of the relationship), getting to the heart of significant commercial challenges and leading a real contribution to creating something meaningful. Or to launch a new type of cereal. Either way, it’s an act of creation. And creation is a rewarding pastime.
One of the most energy-sapping jobs in advertising is dealing with unhappy clients. And that’s part of the job.
Don't get me wrong, I love clients. I particularly love the challenges my clients are trying to solve. I even joined an agency that offered me the chance to work more closely with even more of them. But one of the side effects of attracting high-performance clients (both brands and individuals) is that their standards are consistently very high. When you don’t meet these standards, they let us know. And when I say ‘us’, I mean the Account Service team. It is far too easy (and counterproductive) to conflate the recipient of the message (usually the suit) with the cause of the message (usually the work).
Account people are like the thermostat in the room.
Somewhere between the cool, calculating demands of the client and the white-hot excitement of the creatives’ ideas and possibilities lies the work that will actually be made. There is no end to the functional roles performed by Account Service on any major client engagement (making sure things happen on time and within budget; finding a resource or an expert; keeping the client on board with an idea and on it goes), but perhaps their most valuable contribution is to act as translators and mediators between agencies, clients, production partners, procurement, publishers, talent, venues, and more. They make sure the temperature of the room is comfortable for everyone.
An agency's ‘front-line' people are the reason clients choose to stay — and pay.
If you’re grown up enough to realise that long-standing clients and a low churn rate are the magic ingredients that make it possible for agencies to provide the environment and resources that creatives love, you’re probably ready to admit this as well: At the end of a pitch, a client will usually choose an agency based on its strategic insight and creative ability. But they'll decide whether to stay with it based on the quality of the relationship — which is a direct result of the account handling.
The best agency account handlers are worth their weight in gold and should be rewarded accordingly. But the industry has a problem: it doesn't know how to charge properly for the Account Service function. Or the Project Management function, for that matter.
Suits are better at collaboration than almost all of us.
All great creative work comes from collaboration. A cursory check of most agency websites reveals that many claim it to be the cornerstone of their culture, or one of their key values – or even their point of difference. And who ‘owns’ collaboration? While I’m busy pushing ideas, the Strategist is championing an insight, the Project Manager is ruthlessly defending the budget and timeline and our Client stays focussed on the results, it’s the Suit who is tirelessly stitching these pieces of cloth together to make something we can all wear. The bigger or more important the project, the more it lives or dies on the health of the collaboration driving it.
It boggles the mind that an organisation can celebrate a verb while dismissing the person responsible for delivering it.
We don’t value our Suits because we don’t invest in them.
Perhaps it’s because Suits must be knowledgeable in so many aspects of the business that it’s difficult to imagine a curriculum that would cover the breadth adequately. Or maybe we pre-emptively believe most Suits are on their way to ‘better things’. Or (perhaps in the case of the OP on LinkedIn) we just don’t respect their contribution that, as an industry, we tend to under-invest in training and skills for Account Service. There is no shortage of copy schools, design courses, planning academies, strategy sprints, media training modules and production institutes. Suits, generally, have to figure it out for themselves. Chicken, meet egg. (Or should that be the other way around?).
I asked our agency’s founder, Tim Sands, (himself a former Suit) to define the role and he described them as the ‘venn diagram overlap between the creative, the commercial, and the relational’.
Our General Manager, Rachael Webb, was glad the issue was being addressed but she wasn’t seeking credit: ‘The fact is: Client Service is a thankless role. If we do our job right, we line up our strategy and creative colleagues to shine’.
Maybe I took the bait on a social media post and should just learn to keep scrolling. Or maybe, just maybe, we’d be a better industry if everyone in it got the recognition they deserve. To the charge that the involvement of Account Service means that Clients don’t ‘have access to creatives’, I offer a simple defence:
Our creatives work directly with our clients very often — but they never have to do it alone.
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