Agency Viewpoint

A Case for the Renaissance of Account Management

Calling Adland's Pete Campbells: Your T-Shaped Thinking is Needed Now

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Chris Mumford
Chris Mumford

The global recession is eating away at our clients' budgets. The agency business model is weak at the knees. New media becomes old media overnight, leaving many of us behind. Clumsy attempts at onboarding technological expertise have left once-great agencies reeling. And margins? Remember margins?

More than ever before, the advertising industry needs entrepreneurs. We need people who can find daylight in all this muck. More than ever before, we need visionary, action-oriented leaders.

It is finally a great time to be in account management.

Almost sounds like a joke, doesn't it? For the past 60 years, we account folks have been portrayed as the credit-card-carriers for the creative guys. (Consider Pete Campbell vs. Don Draper.) Planners came along, and we moved down another notch. The geeks came in and became instant heroes. Even media became cool.

But it turns out that the modern account executive is ideally positioned for the new world. Why? Because we are not specialists. We are, in Malcom Gladwell-speak, T-shaped entrepreneurs with a deep understanding of account management and a broad knowledge of all the related disciplines.

At our best we are:

  • Dynamic thinkers who understand the broader view of our client's business.
  • Orchestrators who know how business works and how to marshal resources and talent.
  • Inspiring leaders who are willing to take intelligent risks, explore new financial models and build new management systems.
  • Relationship builders who work day in, day out with our clients, proving that we can be reliable, objective partners to CMOs and creative directors alike.
  • True believers who know there is genius both in conceiving great ideas and in bringing them to life.
  • Creative brand managers and generalists who don't start with assumptions about hard sell or soft sell, TV or digital, mobile or social.

Our industry is desperate for a new generation of entrepreneurial account people. Our agencies need it, our clients want it and creative people are crying out for it.

Any agency worth its salt is encouraging account executives to speak up, not just to be in the discussion but also to lead it. Even when they're at their most insecure -- especially when they're at their most insecure -- creative leaders don't want yes men as partners, they want opinionated thought leaders. Our clients don't want old fashioned "mad men," they want men and women who get mad when good ideas die for bad reasons or when the ideas just aren't good enough.

Nothing excites great account leaders like great ideas -- their own or someone else's. If great creative leaders like starting jobs, great account leaders like bringing them to triumphant conclusions.

Even though account executives are typically depicted as the industry's Willy Lomans, there's no shortage of inspiring role models for today's upstarts. Jay Chiat, Pat Fallon , Carl Ally, Shelly Lazarus, Charlotte Beers and my agency's John Adams were account executives who never played second fiddle to anyone. They made things happen. They were MVPs. If they proved their value over the past few decades, think how much more valuable their leadership would be or is today. (Attention will be, must be paid.)

For years the industry has done its damnedest to make account management an unattractive career option. CDs and strategists have been lionized. Techies have been welcomed with open arms and opened pocketbooks. The awards are given to everyone else. While others went to Cannes, we went to the distributor conferences.

But look at us now. We quit the Lucky Strikes back in the '80s. We put down the Dewar's years ago. As far as we're concerned, someone else can pick up the tab at Shutters.

We've got work to do.

Chris Mumford is a twenty-year account management veteran, holds an MBA from The Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern. He currently serves as SVP Group Managing Director at The Martin Agency.

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