More than 30 years after the cancellation of "Bewitched" took that pop-culture portrait of agency account man as bootlicking bumbler off the airwaves, those who ply his trade still struggle -- maybe more than ever -- to remain relevant. Years of marketer cost-cutting have thinned the once-bloated ranks of account managers -- in 2001, it's estimated that their numbers dwindled by as much as 30% -- and with revolutionary changes sweeping the ad business, even the most dyed-in-the-gray-wool suit will be forced to change, or accept his ultimate demise.
Pretty much everyone, from agency bosses, to recruiters, to marketers, agree on four things related to the immediate future of account management: 1. Account execs need to have business acumen, not just ad expertise. 2. As other marketing disciplines, such as direct and interactive, grow more central, account execs need to be conversant in them and capable of coordinating many relationships. 3. Extensive training is needed to make this possible. 4. The industry is getting its ass kicked on the first three points.
"There's downward pressure on the number of account executives that can service accounts and there's not nearly enough resources for training," said Joe Grimaldi, president-CEO of Mullen. "And there's a tension because clients are saying `I want you guys to be able to do more things and be able to work in other disciplines."'
An agency CEO at one of the largest ad networks agreed about the pressure for flatter structures: "Clients want a line into the top agency management. They want holistic-thinking business partners. The days of the stuffed shirt are over."
To be sure, the job's had its heroes, from massive account services-driven agencies such as McCann Erickson to individuals like Jay Chiat and John McGarry, who star in tales of relationship-building derring-do that are legend within the industry. But, more often than not, talking about the account executive's trade turns into a discussion of stigma -- the stigma of a collective with big salaries (a group account director earns an average of around $200,000, according to recruitment consultants) and bigger expense accounts who struggle to justify themselves in an era when clients want to know exactly what they're paying for.
Yes men and glad-handers
A group psychology of the account executive is, in no small part, one of self-loathing. They'll describe their own not only as stuffed shirts, but with any number of colorful nouns, including glad-handers, yes men and bag-carriers. David Ogilvy summed it up best years ago, when he questioned why account execs so often outnumbered creatives: "If you were a dairy farmer, would you employ twice as many milkers as you had cows?"
To a great degree, the surfeit of milkers came from years of throwing in additional account executives as a way to justify fees. It was partially taken care of by the last recession, but leaner hasn't necessarily been better. "The talent pool doesn't have enough properly trained candidates," said Amy Hoover, senior VP at recruiter Talent Zoo. "It's everything from communicating in a mature fashion, to selling the agency, to knowing when to push back on a client."
The stakes for agencies trying to figure out how to remedy its most client-facing function are high. They face competition from any number of sexier or better-paying trades -- management consultancies, media companies, financial operations -- for the kind of mind that can slay a complex problem with a robust communications solution. "It's one of the best times for self-assured account people and it's a dangerous time for people to be found out," said Jeff Steinhour, partner-director of account management at Crispin Porter & Bogusky.
Battle for the top
The competition includes planners at their own shops, media agencies working to develop full-throated communications planning offerings and shops formerly-known-as-below-the-line, all of whom sniff blood in the battle for a seat at the head of the strategic table.
For instance, Publicis Groupe's MediaVest, which along with sibling agency Starcom produces some of the most forward-thinking strategic insight, is now rolling out a client-services training program for its staffers at the supervisor level and above. The program, said MediaVest exec VP-managing director Bill Tucker, is designed to educate them on everything from basic agency business issues, to marketing issues, to the procurement process to relationship building.
"Account services is part science and part art," Mr. Tucker said. "This is about leveraging talent and empowering people to go beyond where we've gone for the client."
There are any number of agencies that are trying to push relationships further, enough so that some observers can envision a day when ad agencies, not long ago the sun in the agency solar system, are mere content-producing satellites. M.T. Carney, who recently left Ogilvy & Mather and its American Express account to help found Naked Communications' U.S. operations, spins a scenario where account execs segment into two camps, strategy and content. That's years off, but in the meantime, she said, ad agencies need to get small and promote smart people quickly.
"You need a small group that can work across disciplines," she said. "The layers and layers are just paralyzing and, now more than ever, you need to make decisions quickly."
Given all this, is it worth imagining a world without account executives, an organization where creative takes on both roles? Amalgamated did just that when it started up in 2003-and it was a mess. There were budget issues, deadlines were missed, and the upstart shop missed out on client opportunities.
But the moment when management knew it had to fix the situation and hire properly-trained executives actually came following a pitch that really worked. The client, Fuse, loved an idea the agency concocted that involved a gigantic billboard in Times Square and bought it-before Amalgamated discovered it couldn't lawfully execute the concept.
In addition to avoiding those quagmires, the presence of account execs has actually helped fire up the creativity, said Managing Partner Charles Rosen. "We were doing our most traditional work back then," Mr. Rosen said. "I guess it turned out we needed a framework for our chaos."