The Model Change in Client Services

The role of the account person in an agency has changed dramatically through the years.

In the past, we have certainly asked a lot of our account or client services people. They may have handled the entire client engagement; from participating in generating new clients and managing the relationship to developing client strategy and acting as the agency brand leadership to playing a role as the sole project manager in the agency from start to finish.

The account person of the past may have had the largest job description of any individual role in the company. 

The debate on the role and importance of account management in today's advertising or creative firm continues. On one side, agencies feel that strong account management makes for better client-agency partnership. On the other side, projects have become so complex that the old model of account management and what they do no longer makes sense to the larger agency process.

Times have changed, and creative firms and agencies have morphed and specialized the former traditional role of the account person into three, four or even five different disciplines. In many cases, the account person generalist has been split off into some very different roles that require the personality types of different types of people in order to see success. Agencies have built out different ways of handling engagement management, strategic development, project management, marketing partnership and user experience development. 

I agree that they are very different jobs. These specialists do require different skills and mind-sets. That's not to say that account management is less valuable now than ten or even five years ago, but the shift in what makes them valuable to the client's business is different.

Strategic thinking, specialization and understanding a client's business USING SYSTEM THINKING

I think we use the word strategy very loosely in creative agencies. Everyone in agency land seems to consider themselves strategic in some fashion. 

To some extent, I think that's ok. We should apply our critical thinking skills daily and question the heck out of everything. But we should differentiate between the capacity for applying strategic thinking to what we do, versus an expert who specializes in strategic understanding of the client's business.

To have a strategic role in an agency requires someone who can understand high level strategic analytically thinking. It goes beyond market research, building insights, brand planning and understanding audience segmentation, analytics and building personas. It's taking that data and marrying it with a broader view of the clients business and communication principals. 

As we have moved along into a larger array of disciplines, there are more strategic players on the field. 

The value of an account person in a strategic-level role can be hard to actualize for many creative firms. If we understand process in today's integrated agency we can see why. The real value of an effective account person is bringing together all of the speciality strategic thinking, planning and media viewpoints. It's an account person's ability to communicate with a CMO or head of marketing and use their expertise to apply system thinking to the business objectives to the client's business and to help convince them to build work based upon this thinking.

That's not to say that your strategic team isn't a (or the) system thinker in your agency. For some agencies, strategy that is based on holistic thinking is the norm. In these cases, you can see why the role of the account manager has changed.

Engagement management versus relationship building

Managing the engagement is a highly integrated process. We are working with more client side players from different technical disciplines to communication methods. On the agency side, it may even be more diverse, where you need to deal heavily with an ever widening range of people and resources, requiring a person to have a personality that can navigate and motive all types of individuals. 

Managing the engagement does play a significant role in managing the client-agency relationship. However, managing the relationship is not always building the relationship. I think this is where the producer model of integrated marketing is the weakest. 

Account people may not be the best in managing day-to-day work, but what effective account people can do is protect the relationship between the agency and the client. There are still brands out there that have no clue how certain types of media need to be approached. Great account people build and maintain trust with the client, they anticipate problems and help the agency bridge difficult crossroads in communication and the agency partnership. 

Next level project management requires it to be separated from account management.

Where agency's fail too often is not realizing that managing a project is very different than managing the client. Executing a client's work is a massive job, that can't be screwed with.

Projects in today's creative firms need to protected by the people that are managing those projects. I like to think of it like this. Account management = client advocate. Project management = agency advocate. If you want to successful run projects through your agency, there needs to be an understanding that the two are very different.

Successful agencies understand that project management is more than just building an estimate and a schedule, its about playing a role (or the role) in managing the execution.

Project management also requires people who have a personality type than your traditional account folks. Even if you are managing a traditional workflow, you need people who can manage the details and stay organized and on-task.

Your account folks who can lead clients, apply system thinking to strategy and build strong agency/client relationships are not necessarily the right type of skilled people who can manage your agency process.

Understand, that project management as a discipline is rapidly changing the way your agency works. If you are working with agile methodologies, you need a team project leader who has strong people skills and can motivate a wide range of different individuals. Scopes-of-work, risk analysis, and managing the process is an area that should stay on the project management side.

Many agencies have also changed up the model, and divided the role to lean heavily on a project management methodology that better fits today's technology needs. An agency that relies on the integrated producer model, places the producer in the central role. A producer is someone that has a high level of specialty knowledge in one area of production, but also has the role of project manager and engagement manager rolled in as well. 

In many agencies, they have seen success in incorporating engagement and project management. Where it is successful depends on both the type of work and the culture of the agency. As the nature of the work has morphed into so many different areas, the way we work requires new sets of skills.

So does an account person have a role in today's agency? 

In some agencies yes, and they can still play a significant and valuable role.

But, in some agencies they are extinct. 

In the agencies that still value the client service role, what an account person does has shifted. The value of account services, or account people really comes down to two things, their understanding of your client or potential client's marketing and their skills as sales people.

Today's account people need to have a real business mindset. They need to understand their client's market and the factors that influence it. While I hate to use the word "thought leader,"that's what they are, a thought leader who understands your client's business and business objective. They can think like a client's customer, and they have experience in understanding the existing range of a client's marketing tactics.

They can still play an important role as a client advocate and help to build and maintain the agency/client partnership. They can be important in keeping your client happy. They can also be important to organic revenue growth within an existing client. 

At the same time, agencies have developed internal specialists that are important to new agency disciplines. Clients are also working a lot closer with agencies, and as we move closer to agile project management and lean practices, we see clients becoming a part of the team (even co-locating within the agency) not distance outsiders. As these partnerships get closer and closer the older models of account management are less likely to apply to how we are doing business now and in the future.

The Large Agency Model

In larger agencies, where you are managing very large budgets, you may still see the need and place value in client services. However, the role an account director, management supervisor and account executive play is going to be limited to the marketing and business side.

In large agencies, account people may play a role in:

  • Industry Specific Thought Leadership
  • Marketing Communications Opportunities and Partnership Development
  • Client Level P&L
  • Management of Agency Partners
  • Marketing Plan Development
  • Brand Stewardship
  • Client Liaison 

In a large agency environment, the value of the account team is seen in its ability to act as a business lead who partner with an project leader (like a project manager).

Account People act as the Business Lead

  • Get Client Buy-In
  • Maintain and Build the Client Relationship
  • Ensure an account's profitability
  • Help Develop Business Objectives
  • Help Develop Briefs
  • Brand Management 
  • Strategic Communications

In the old days, the account team also acted as the project or operations lead. However, in most cases there are now internal project or operations leads that act as a partner to the account team.

Project Managers act as the Project Lead

  • Scope Development and Management
  • Manage Internal and External Resources
  • Internal Team Resource Management
  • Project Level Profitability
  • Project Management
  • Project Level Communications

Together both the business lead and the project lead partner with a team to manage the needs of the large account.