A progressive proposal for agency account management

There has been some debate recently about not only the role but the very survival of account management in agencies.

The issue was raised in Campaign by ‘the chair of the IPA Client Services Group’, no less: http://bit.ly/aYjNyv.

I don’t sit comfortably in today’s PC world requiring me to call her a ‘chair’ but, as she says she ‘loves being an account man’, I admire her already.

Anyway, as someone who has managed large and small agencies, both in London and overseas, I have long held a thought which I would now like to bring to the table.

Once upon a time, the CEO of a major multi-national client company told me that anyone who aspired to reach the top had to be prepared ‘to cross disciplines and cross borders’.

Yet, still, agencies still lag way behind their clients in these two areas.

Here follows a series of generalisations, for which I apologise, but I need to make them to get to my specific point.

Most agency personnel are ‘labelled’ by their area of speciality from the birth of their careers.

Yes there are exceptions. Some ‘suits’ manage to transfer to creative. Indeed, I once took some unpaid months off to give this a go myself. Others cross over to other disciplines, but this is still relatively rare, difficult to achieve and seldom encouraged by agency management.

For a suit, the career pyramid is very steep. And the top of this pyramid is not populated by the best people whose careers started as agency suits. Many move over to the client side, where their skills and intelligence are better suited and applied. Others drift away from the business altogether.

I began my career as one of five graduate trainees at Ogilvy & Mather. The other four all had Oxbridge degrees. I hadn’t been to university at all (another story). My contemporaries were all very bright, intellectual even, and certainly clever enough to recognise there are better career options out there than be suited advertising agency account management people.

None of them work for Ogilvy or any other advertising agency anymore.

This is not their ‘fault’, of course, but I do believe agencies could structure themselves better to develop more disciplined and rewarding career paths for better, cleverer people to stay in the business; for agencies to benefit from presenting better-qualified and smarter suits to their clients; and then, perhaps, charge more for their currently under-valued expertise.

So I would like to propose a new way forward.

Before this, I need you to accept one further generalisation – that the job of a suit is a combination of thinking and doing.

Quite frankly, my first two years at Ogilvy were the most enjoyable of my career. I loved being an account man. All I did was what I was told to do. Pour the coffee, write the contact reports and keep the wheels in motion – mostly, it has to be said, by persuading other people in the agency to do the things that needed doing. It was great. I didn’t really have to think at all.

Then, for most suits, come two or three difficult years where a new grad arrives to pour the coffee and you feel you can do as well as the Account Director above you. (I chose a different, perhaps more creative, path – another, another story).

This is when many of the clever people bail out. They are squeezed not only between their client views on one side and agency views on the other – but also from above and below in their account management structure (and all to promote sales of products or services that they know, because they are smart suits, really don’t matter or will change the world at all).

Now, from a management point of view, it can be good news when suits walk out at this stage. They are good people and you want to keep them, but you now have to pay them, say, £30k when you can pick up two grads for a similar bogof price. At the same time, you know they are not ready to be Account Directors where they will have to understand and argue the case for the thinking which underpins the agency’s recommendations.

So there is this career void in the life of a suit which I reckon lies between two and four years of your career development.

In managing smaller agencies, this is when I have actively encouraged and helped former grads find jobs at bigger and better agencies than mine – who may have downsized their grad recruitment policy and need people to hit the ground running, which my trainees, who glory in the privilege of learning from my own sheer brilliance, can by now do brilliantly themselves.

I said I would generalise, so please accept my theory that this career void exists, park it and stick with me while I put different hat on.

Because now we come to planners. Ah, planners! They do have to think.

As clients expect a sophisticated and experienced perspective, this makes recruiting ‘grad’ planners difficult to justify so, even these days, planners sort of emerge from inside and outside advertising.

In short, planners’ careers are not well planned.

So my proposal is as follows.

You want a career in advertising. You are clever, quick-thinking, insightful, imaginative, creative and you have an empathy with human behaviour.

As you climb the slippery slope, this is what clients will pay for.

Stage One, you spend two years in account management. What you are asked to do is not difficult for someone as bright as you.

But what you do is important because agencies need to deliver on budget and on time and the last thing an agency needs is a groundswell of anti-agency feeling to rise up from the client’s own ‘junior’ managers.

After all, agencies get paid for efficient implementation of their strategic thinking and creative ideas which, as we know, they have given away for free at the pitch process. Dumb, but true.

As a suit, up to now, you have been judged more by doing than thinking.

Stage Two, a thrusting new young grad takes your place as day-to-day gofer on your account(s). It is time for you to ‘cross disciplines’.

You become a junior planner on, ideally, the same account(s) you have been working on with the clients you love. Now you really have to study the market, you have to talk to and touch the target audience – both on the street in quantitative research and in qualitative research groups – and you have to bring new insights and fresh perspectives which you can present clearly within the agency and to your clients.

You have to think – as all good suits should do (you would be amazed at how many people who manage advertising agencies just don’t get it).

Stage Three, after two years as a planner, following two years as a suit, you have spent four years in advertising, the equivalent time accountants, lawyers, doctors and architects take to learn their professions.

And you have reached a cross-roads. Are you a suit or a planner? Or are you in the wrong business? Perhaps you are better-suited as a client or in another way of life entirely – school teacher, nurse, politician, whatever.

Or is it the time for you to ‘cross borders’ and accept an overseas posting? Be careful. In the agency world, this is a dangerous call – as I know to my own cost. Multinational clients are much better at staff transfers than agencies.

Whichever way forward you chose, you have a strong grounding behind you (ideally certified by the appropriate professional bodies).

And, in the longer term, the agency you work for will be led by people who are deeper thinking and more knowledgeable than they are now – and your clients, at last, will respect the wise counsel you provide and value your agency at the level they pay their other professional advisors.

About Hugh Salmon

Business leader. Adman. Writer.
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