Have We Stopped Taking Account Management Seriously Again?

Three Criteria That Can Make or Break Client-Agency Partnerships

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After many years of debate about the role and importance of account management -- "Is Account Management Dead?"; "Is Account Management Back?" -- the chatter appears to have died down, and everyone seems to be in agreement that account management is indeed valuable and needed.

However, I'm starting to wonder if everyone is really convinced. In our agency reviews and performance evaluations, we're hearing from many clients that, once again, the core components of account management -- strategy, leadership and relationship-building -- are missing from their partnerships. And when I recently attended a new-business meeting at which an agency didn't even have an account person present, it made me wonder, "Are we taking account management seriously?"

In hearing from our clients, I know that account management is one of the most important investments an agency can make, if taken seriously and supported appropriately.

Here are three account management criteria that we see marketers prioritizing in agency reviews. Criteria that can often mean the difference between good vs. great account management, and ultimately, good vs. great client-agency partnerships.

I'm putting this criterion first because I think it's the most nebulous and misunderstood, as departments such as business insights, brand planning and media continue to grow in importance. Strategy for account management means looking at a client's business with a broader view of its industry and competition, and then marrying that analysis with communications principles. Some account management teams are doing this. Others are not, which isn't entirely surprising. With so many strategic players in so many disciplines, it can feel like an account person's strategic role isn't "real."

Here's why it's quite real: Clients expect their agency counterparts to know their business. It isn't about becoming the product manager. It isn't about line extensions. It's about bringing your communications expertise to the specific objectives of the business. It's about bringing new thinking that works within the realities of your client's brand and budget. This is the job of account management. And if your account team isn't doing it, no one is. Not planning. Not business insights. Not media. They have their own strategic fish to fry.

Even for naysayers, the client relationship is still the need everyone points to when quantifying account management's value. However, we need to define what taking care of the client really means. Is it the credit-card-carrying Pete Campbell [from "Mad Men"], martini-lunch variety? While taking care of the client will always be part of an account manager's role, agencies are missing a big opportunity if they think that's where the account team's role begins and ends.

Building relationships with clients entails open and honest communication. A great account person maintains the trust of the client and a deeper understanding of what works and what doesn't work for its business. Effective account management leaders anticipate problems vs. simply reacting, and help their teams navigate through challenging points in the partnership. Breakdown in communication between the client and agency is one of the top reasons a partnership goes south. To elevate the relationship from vendor to partner requires more than just a "yes man."

Today, agencies talk a lot about the quadrumvirate of account management, creative, brand planning and media as a successful model. And it is. However, the shared importance of these four disciplines -- at some agencies -- has brought about the denigration of account management's leadership role.

Further complicating the issue, project management has been absorbed into many account management teams. Execution is clearly a huge piece of an agency's job -- and it can be incredibly difficult to focus on anything beyond getting the work out the door -- but the account management team needs to be bigger than timelines and to-do lists.

Do you have an account leader who is a palpable presence on your team -- to clients, creative, planning and the host of other groups working on the business? Do you have an account director (or higher) who can present confidently in front of the client's executive team? Is there someone on the account side whom the creative director (or higher) respects for his or her insight on the industry and relationship with the client's CMO? Creative, brand planning, media and other disciplines can and should be elevated in importance, but this cannot be at the expense of account management's ability to lead.

So, take a look at your account team and ask if your agency is assisting in the growth and development of bright, empowered account leaders. Because when it comes to the value account management can bring to your client relationships, there should be no debate.

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