To find the answers, we mailed questionnaires to 250 senior executives at 68 of the top 100 agencies listed in the April 14, 1993, issue of Ad Age. They were asked a series of agree/disagree questions about the experience and responsibilities of current AEs and were also given an opportunity for open-ended comment.
We received 144 responses (58%). Over 65% of the respondents were executive or senior VPs with 10 to 30 years of experience. So they could offer a valuable perspective on the changing role of the account executive. Three closely related trends emerged that raise troubling questions about the experience, training and strategic abilities of today's AE. And those are questions that bear directly upon the future health of the industry as well.
Diminished responsibility. Nearly half of those surveyed felt the role of the AE in dealing with the client is nowhere near what it was 20 years ago. No longer is the account executive the one with the vertical view who pulls together goals, strategy, media and message. Today, that's the function of the account supervisor. As one respondent noted, "Responsibilities have shifted upward on the client side. So the agency management has a greater hands-on role than ever before and the account executive has considerably less responsibility." Another respondent put it even more bluntly: "The business is moving to thinkers and doers. The AE of today has little time to think. Thinking is done by experienced account people at senior levels."
Not a strategist but a cheerleader. As a managing director at a major New York agency pointed out, since today's AEs are being judged not on their strategic ability but on their ability to deliver work on time, "they must know how to get the best work from the agency and must also be more capable of motivating people than they were in the past." And doing that requires account people to work in a far wider range of media than ever before. So it's not surprising that 89% of those surveyed feel that today's AE must be familiar with more communication areas than 20 years ago.
Less experience but faster promotions. As the strategic responsibilities of account executives have diminished, so have their credentials and experience. As the respondents overwhelmingly agreed, far fewer MBAs are becoming AEs today. After investing upwards of $40,000 in graduate studies, MBAs are not interested in a position that offers few strategic challenges and a starting salary far below what they've been led to expect. And having had less than positive experiences in the past with new MBAs, agencies aren't particularly interested in seeking them out. In fact, the chairman of a $100 million agency said "we call them murderers of brand assets because most MBAs learn all the wrong things to become good account people."
More importantly, however, the respondents were also quick to point out that low salaries, limited challenges and heavy workloads are also making it difficult for agencies to find the kind of candidates they are looking for-candidates who have the potential to be both "doers" today and "thinkers" tomorrow.
But paradoxically enough, agencies are not only hiring account executives with considerably less experience than in the past, they're also promoting them much more quickly, partly in order to retain them and partly as a result of economic conditions. And that raises some very thorny issues for the industry.
Agencies must change or they'll lose more than good people. Even the best of today's AEs generally lack the strategic abilities they'll need as account supervisors. But unlike their counterparts of 20 years ago, they are given few opportunities to acquire those skills.
And it's strategic thinking that clients want. So if in the future agencies are to provide clients with the thinking they're looking for, they will have to find ways to broaden the responsibilities of account executives and give them more opportunities, as they did in the past, to develop the strategic abilities clients value. Ultimately, that will not only make for more effective account supervisors but it will also make the account executive's job itself more rewarding. And that, in turn, can help agencies attract the kind of qualified candidates they seek but often fail to find.
This approach clearly has long-term advantages. But in the short term it will put additional pressure on the agency's profitability and operational efficiency. Those agencies that are more concerned with the next quarter than the next 10 years may continue to conduct business as usual. Doing so, however, could well jeopardize their future.
Because if clients can't get the thinking they want from their agency, they're now more than willing to turn to other sources. So while providing better training and broader responsibility for AEs may be painful, it may also be necessary if agencies are to enjoy a healthy future.M
Mr. Weisberg, former president of Waring & LaRosa, and Mr. Robbs, formerly an agency creative supervisor, are associate professors at the University of Colorado, Boulder. The survey was conducted by Eric Thompson, a recent graduate and now assistant account exec at McCann-Erickson, San Francisco.