How Account Management Was Reborn

The Account Manager Is More Powerful Than Ever

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Wanted: 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 at managing up, managing down and balancing a P&L. Old-school thinkers need not apply.

This would be, if he or she existed, the job description for the perfect account management executive today, a species whose archetype has died and been reborn, albeit with a new set of required skills.

Account managers, as they were long known, were gradually culled over the last 10 to 15 years, according to observers, with cuts reaching their height during the recession. Any hiring during the recession, and even after, was largely in relation to tech-savvier disciplines as the demand for digital creative and media grew.

But the typical suit of decades past, often thought of as a yes-man or glad-hander, is no longer relevant. In his place has grown a new account lead responsible for much more than what was expected of account management even five years ago, never mind decades ago. Digital creatives aren't the hottest hires. Thanks to a marketing landscape that continues to shift as agencies of all stripes compete for any and all pieces of business, the account manager has evolved into one of the most powerful players in adland.

The fundamental work that famed account managers like Jay Chiat or John McGarry were renowned for -- developing relationships, serving clients and understanding their needs -- has not changed. But the means of doing it and what a client expects from its agency have. Today's account managers need to understand all facets of marketing, and understand them well. No matter what kind of agency employs them, account leaders need to be steeped in the digital landscape and everything that goes along with it: social platforms and their data, ad formats and attribution models (one could spend a month alone learning Facebook's or Google's intricacies and still not know everything), content strategy and distribution, and communications planning.

"It's a different kind of account management now," said Guy Hayward, global CEO at MDC Partners' KBS. "In the old days, it was more about relationships and making sure the creative work was good, and all you had to worry about was TV, print, radio and outdoor."

As the business has morphed, so has the account manager's job to help the client make sense of it all. KBS recently reorganized its account management department, now calling it "business leadership," as the shop seeks to provide clients with answers across multiple disciplines that may even stretch beyond an advertising solution.

"The thing that has changed is, historically, clients approached an agency with a specific problem to be solved," said Mr. Hayward. "But it's really hard for a client now. There are so many opportunities, and things are changing so fast all the time, that it's very hard to decide what you should be doing. Our best business leaders are true problem solvers who have a creative solution."

Just in the last decade, the number of agencies working for any given big marketer has arguably grown, thanks in part to clients moving away from a single- (or two- or three-) agency model. More agencies mean more coordination among them, and account management is the wrangler.

On top of all that, creative shops are competing for work with more agencies than ever before. Some digital shops are developing stronger account management departments as they look to compete for bigger pieces of business. Mollie Rosen, exec VP-agency relations and membership at the 4A's, says that specialized shops, particularly digital ones, previously had project manager roles rather than account management, but that's no longer the case. "The discipline is taking root where it hadn't before," she said. "More and more, great ideas can come from anywhere; there's more fluidity in the work; and more agencies are looking to play the role of the brand leader."

In fact, the role has become so important, she said, that next month the 4A's will launch a committee dedicated to account management. Ms. Rosen said client-agency relationships are more project-based now; there's unprecedented pressure from Wall Street, and a need for better trust between client and agency; and shops are on the hook more than ever to make margin. "All those pressures lead to a real need to make sure we've got strong leaders to lead not just the clients' business but also the agencies' business," said Ms. Rosen.

'Oligarchs': The Rise of the Holding Company Account Lead

Agency parent companies over the last decade have increasingly brought account management to the holding company level in an effort to organize multiple agencies working for the same clients. WPP is well known for its "team model," and Omnicom, for example, has had execs like Troy Ruhanen oversee collaboration among Omnicom agencies for the company's large multinational clients. (Mr. Ruhanen is now chief of TBWA, and Peter Sherman now oversees innovation and collaboration at Omnicom.) J. Walter Thompson CEO Tamara Ingram previously led WPP Group's Procter & Gamble team and later rose to oversee all of WPP's global accounts.

When Publicis Groupe reorganized in December, the company said it was adding a number of chief client officers, essentially account management execs, reporting to Chief Revenue Officer Laura Desmond as it works to offer more integrated services. "We're completely changing the way we work with clients and leading that change is the account person," said Arthur Sadoun, CEO of Publicis Communications, who described account management's role as moving from selling the advertising idea to selling the consumer experience across a number of channels.

Often, agency CEOs grew up in account management. Now, they're sometime finding themselves looking up at holding company account executives. Mr. Sadoun said the key account manager of the future is not necessarily the agency CEO but an account leader "who can transform big relationships" into an "integrated system" that goes beyond one specific agency.

Translation: They decide where the money goes.

This can naturally cause tension between them and agency CEOs, one of which referred to holding company account managers as "oligarchs."

"In some [holding company] cultures, being the global account lead is becoming more important than the agency CEO," this person said, because the lead controls big budgets that can often be a significant amount of an agency's fee. "Who owns the client relationship is so key to who controls authority and power."

But account leaders are also fewer in number. Back in the old days, account management departments were often bloated, with multiple layers of employees to justify big fees. Not anymore. In the past 15 to 20 years, the departments have dwindled, thanks in part to the commission system dying, but also due to clients demanding access to top agency executives. The account mangers are now those liaisons.

Industry insiders point to this decade's "procurement revolution" as a tipping point for account management. As client procurement departments trimmed fees, agencies had to get lean, particularly holding company shops required to maintain a certain margin.

Training and Talent Shortage

But while the stock of account managers is rising, a confluence of factors is working against growing their ranks. During the recession, client budget cuts prompted agency layoffs, often in the account management department. As the theory went at the time, shops could still operate with a lean account management staff, at least leaner than the creative department.

Squeezed fees also took a toll on in-house training programs for the posts. Even an MBA from a top-tier business school wasn't necessarily prepared for a broadening account management role. Agencies that felt pressure to cut costs often put their training programs on the chopping block, agency executives said.

Ms. Rosen said that there is concern among agencies that employees in account management today are not getting properly trained, especially when it comes to keeping up with the rapidly changing industry.

"Back in the day when we were working off commissions and there was more fat, you could always turn that into muscle," said TBWA New York CEO Rob Schwartz. "Agencies would invest in more training programs. But if they want to train now, it's often coming out of profits."

And, of course, shops have to compete with more businesses now for the best talent. Tech companies like Facebook and consultants like Deloitte are increasingly seeking account managers, and the pay and perks are often better. "There are a lot of great companies to work for. What are agencies promising?" said Mr. Schwartz. "Long nights, low pay and chronic disrespect. That's not a recipe for A-plus talent."

Agencies Don't Prioritize Account Management

But while the client's thinking has evolved when it comes to account managers, agencies are largely unenlightened when it comes to new business pitches, where creatives and strategists shine but account managers often get only a couple slides at the end of a deck.

"Clients say that account management is the most important role at an agency for them, but they say that they're often not sure they've gotten a good sense of that person and their capabilities" during pitches, said Meghan McDonnell, senior VP at consultant Pile & Co. "You need to give a meaningful role to the account person," she cautioned agencies.

Some agency people realize their value, though. "Being an account person is the hardest thing in advertising," said Rob Reilly, global creative chairman at McCann. Account management helps synthesize what clients need, he said. "Knowing how to manage people and understand people is what great account people do."

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