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The Case of the Curious Octopus: The Evolution of the Account Manager

By Published on .

Where have you gone, Dick York?
Where have you gone, Dick York?  Credit: ABC Photo Archives

I used to say that the account person is an octopus, juggling many functions and departments, at the heart of the agency touching every department. But even that simple description of the role has evolved.

Here's a trip back in time to chart out how the account manager role morphed into what it is today:

The Jack of all trades
I began my career in account management in NY agencies in the early '80's. By then the role of the account exec had evolved from the glad hander depicted by Darren Stephens in "Bewitched" to handling several functions: client relationships, strategy and project management. You also needed a good grasp of media, production and creative. Pretty much an advertising jack of all trades.

Identity crisis
By the '90's many functions were stripped away from the account job to become their own specialties. Black suited strategic planners with funky eyeglass frames from U.K. appeared on our shores.

Professional project managers with PM certification took over that role. Media became unbundled and dispatched to distant offices and competing holding companies.

But where did that leave the account person? Schmoozing clients at lunch? Letting them win on the golf course? While prevalent when I worked on the Smirnoff account a long time ago, the three martini lunch has pretty much gone the way of the dodo. And who has 5 hours for a round of golf?

A simple, but not easy job
Brendan Ryan had an excellent grasp of the role of the account person when I worked for him when he was CEO at FCB. Having risen through the account ranks himself, he said the role is simple; not easy but simple. Senior account management comprises four tasks:

1. Develop and sell great advertising that sells the hell out of clients' products and builds their brand value over time.
2. Generate significant revenue growth for the agency.
3. Attract, motivate, develop and lead account management people.
4. Develop strong relationships with the senior management of your clients.

The account person in the eye of the storm
Fast forward 20 years, here's what's changed: In speaking with CEO's at various agencies, the consensus is that account management has dramatically evolved in the last 10 years. As I mentioned in my last piece, after the 2008 recession everyone was suddenly being asked to do more with less.

Because of shrinking resources and tightening timetables, client/agency partnerships became tenuous at best. One senior agency account leader said, "Our business has become so complicated that most clients haven't a clue about much of what we do in many channels…and moving forward places a new strain on these relationships."

Now, because of this complexity today's account people are called on to be conversant in client business, have a strategic POV, and be an astute student of a vast range of consumers and emerging media. It's Account Management 2.0.

Enter the curious octopus
Andrew Bailey, CEO of The&Partnership North America built on the mollusc metaphor and said he looks for account leaders who are a "curious octopus": infinitely inquisitive and multi-disciplined, chock full of lateral thinking and collaboration.

A new breed of account leader is emerging who is a master of efficient integration. He or she has the ability to nimbly draw on agency or holding company resources on behalf of a client or business problem.

I placed one such leader who entered the agency to run a large home improvement account. He soon got promoted to orchestrate other agencies in that holding company on behalf of that client. He then created a whole discipline around the retail industry vertical winning other large clients.

No one knows what the future holds. But savvy account leaders should keep up with what's on the horizon of communications and technology, applying best practices and diplomatically juggling and orchestrating many varied resources.

An octopus is said to be a highly intelligent creature. Tomorrow's suit will need plenty of smarts and curiosity to have impact. And having a backbone couldn't hurt.

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