A Vision for the Future of Account Management

Account People Should Be More Like Entrepreneurs

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Phil Johnson
Phil Johnson
Whenever we hire a new person, we engage in an internal debate that always irritates me. It's always about choosing one talent attribute over another. In the creative arena, do you want a great manager, or do you want a creative genius? When it comes to account people, do you want a brilliant strategist, or do you want organizational and project management skills? Maybe it's temperament, but I don't want to choose. If you're reducing people to their component talents, you're thinking too narrowly.

This whole topic surfaced when we launched a recent recruiting effort for account managers. I'm talking about a function, not a job title. I still have a hard time remembering the distinctions between supervisors, coordinators, managers and directors. To my mind, they're all on the front lines with clients. Whatever the title, when they're good, they can elevate every aspect of an agency. At a time when so much focus has been placed on reinventing the agency model and innovations in marketing, account people are the unsung heroes of the business. They carry the burden of taking an agency's best innovations and convincing clients that these are not only real, but useful.

Inevitably, our hiring discussion turned to job levels and the requisite skill set. What's most important: organizational and project management skills, interpersonal strengths, salesmanship, strategic thinking, domain expertise, collaboration? The list goes on and on. I know that it's necessary to make choices, but with the demand for so many talents in one person, I want to find a way to determine whether an account person will be merely good or truly transformative for the agency. I also want to identify a vision for the account person's role that transcends the need to choose between one strength and another.

The model that best captures the qualities of a star account person is that of an entrepreneur. Successful entrepreneurs bet on an idea. They assemble a team that can bring the idea to fruition. They often help people see the value of a new product that has not yet been created. They raise funds, create the economic model, and establish partnerships. They shape a culture where innovation and collaboration thrive. I don't know, but this sounds a whole lot like the qualities we want in an account person who performs at the highest level.

When you start to think of account people as entrepreneurs, it introduces a new level of potential into the role. They are no longer suits dutifully carrying the ideas to meetings. They become catalysts for new thinking and innovation. But in order for them to grow beyond functionaries managing a piece of business, and become business people who create markets for ideas, agencies need to redefine the qualities that they want in account people.

1. I would put curiosity at the top of the list. That's what entrepreneurs do so well. They see possibilities that most of us miss.

2. Next, I'd look for someone who has the initiative to take calculated risks and who knows when to introduce bold new thinking to clients so that it will be recognized and valued. Introduce new ideas too early and they're often dismissed. If you wait too late, you sacrifice the opportunity to take a leadership position.

3. One underrated talent is an instinct for when to stay on the highway and when to cut across the field. Systems and process drive a lot of productive work, but at times they stifle creativity. It takes a finely tuned instinct to know when to get off the main road.

4. A sense of diplomacy has saved many a great campaign and preserved relationships between agency and client. Selling ideas requires negotiation between multiple parties. Creative teams need to accommodate client demands. Clients may need to be pushed to take greater risks. The best account people have the tact to integrate different points of view while preserving the integrity of an idea.

5. Don't overlook pure drive and the insatiable desire to see an idea come to fruition in all its forms. The easiest way to kill a good idea is to just go though the motions. Passion, ambition, and hard work can produce miracles

If you can cultivate these qualities in an account organization, they will spread throughout the agency. Of course, you can't ask people to be entrepreneurial if it doesn't emanate from the top. To my way of thinking, an entrepreneurial spirit is what got most agencies launched in the first place. Management's goal should be to keep that spirit alive, and there's no more essential place than the account organization. In the end, few great ideas and innovations will ever see the light of day without the talents of those people.

Phil Johnson is CEO of PJA Advertising & Marketing with offices in Cambridge and San Francisco. Follow Phil on Twitter: @philjohnson
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