Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Six Secrets To Save An Account

I interview a lot of senior advertising executives.  Many of them have saved accounts.  I have made it a point to ask what they have done to correct a bad situation.  I realized that their solutions are always pretty much the same.  The results seem to fall into several categories and I thought I would pass on the things I have learned.

Agencies and clients rarely part due to creative differences or strategic disagreements.  Mostly, I have heard about agencies losing business over lack of communication and lack of connection.
1)  Listen to the client   
This is an issue I hear virtually every time someone tells me that an account runs into trouble.  Clients complain that their agencies are simply not listening to them.  

This mistreatment manifests itself in many ways, including not doing what is supposed to be done when it is due.  One person who saved an account told me that he simply started to deliver on time work.
Listening to clients doesn’t mean rolling over and playing dead when it comes to creative work.  More often than not, it means that the client needs a willing ear on the part of its agency.  Many agencies seem to treat clients as if they don't know their own needs.  Sometimes this is actually the case, but the smart account manager knows to listen to his or her client, develop the asked for work on a timely basis; that breeds trust  and when the client trusts the agency, they are able to push for better solutions, if necessary.
But first and foremost, clients need to know that the agency is on its side.

2)  Meeting with clients in person
Some time ago I wrote that email was killing the business.  Nothing beats a face-to-face meeting.  It is critical that senior agency people meet with senior clients on a regular basis.   

I just interviewed an SVP who had been running a major account which changed agencies recently.  He told me that the EVP previously running the account at its old agency had lost touch with the client because he had only gone to the client twice in a year.  Ouch.  To make matters worse, the agency was in NYC and the client in NJ. 

The former EVP, at the turn-over meeting, had insisted that the client refused to see him or kept cancelling meetings.   His mistake was waiting for an invitation; it became a vicious circle.  Many senior managers have faced this issue in one way or another.  The smart ones don’t wait for an invitation. They simply show up and, after a while, the client realizes that their agency really does care.

Getting to know the client applies to junior people as well.  It is critical that account executives, supervisors and account directors visit clients regularly. Ditto the creative people.  A relationship cannot be built on the phone or with email or even Skype.  And if the people who are doing the day-to-day work do not have a proper relationship with their counterparts, the foundation of the business will be weak.

Agencies have to become part of the client’s business.  That can only be accomplished by being there.

3) Knowing the client’s business
Many agencies have simply relegated themselves to executing work.  That is not a way to build a relationship.  There are many things which should be done in order to build trust and a partnership.  That is what account people are supposed to do. 

An account which went into review was recently saved.  The person running it made sure to get his account group to really dig into the business.  They came up with insights which were new to the brand group.

The creative work they presented showed a depth of knowledge and commitment.  The agency kept the business.

This is the kind of thing which agencies do when pitching an account but often forget about once the get it.
Knowing the client’s business enables the agency to sell better work and it builds mutual client/agency respect.

Getting back to basics saves business. 
4) Knowing all the client marketing people
Senior people at agencies need to spend time with people other than advertising people – brand managers, promotion people, sales people, manufacturing and the like.  These people are a gold mine of information and insight, not to mention a possible source of new revenues.  I heard a great story about an account director who befriended the client’s specialty sales people – military, incentives and premium, food service. 
These people became great advocates for the agency because they felt that someone was paying attention to them (which goes back to point number one).  They also became a source of additional revenues for the agency, because many of them have specialized budgets which the agency had not previously tapped.

Too many agency people go to visit the client, have their meeting and leave.  Having a meal and walking the halls does wonders for the relationship.
5)  Exchanging Ideas with the client
One person I interviewed told me that twice a year he instituted what he called a group grope.  He called a meeting of his entire account group, including planners, digital, media and creative and had all the clients, including the CMO, in attendance. These meetings have a loose agenda; their purpose is ostensibly to brainstorm about the business. They are informal and fun.  And they take place off campus.
It gives everyone a chance to know each other, to develop ideas and to learn each other's business.  These meetings generate ideas which are far afield, some actionable, some not.  But much good comes out of these get togethers. Everyone gets to really know and respect each other.
Both client and agency look forward to these meetings. The clients feel that they are partnering with the agency.  The account person told me that for the next meeting, they are trying to get the client CEO to attend.

Doing this saved the account.

6)  Involving clients with the creative process
One really good account person told me that she always brings clients into the development of the work. 

The creative department does tissue sessions with the client.  In turn, the client becomes both a source of information and inspiration.  When the final presentation comes, the client feels as if she is part of the process and supports the work.  The account people have learned how to manage the client during these critically important sessions.

 Making sure that the client has a vested interest in the work does wonders for the relationship.


  1. I think this is a really nice summary of the basic principles of strong account management. They are not secrets to agencies that really value healthy client relationships in a way that will result in business growth. And, they shouldn't be viewed as ways to "save an account". No agency will succeed unless these principles are part of their DNA. I have been put on the "save the" account team many times. It is definitely possible to save an account, but it is costly, usually messy and the account may end up leaving regardless.. Any one who touches a client business should live and breathe these six principles.

    1. Thanks, Anne. I fully agree with you. But you would be surprised how often I hear these stories. I think that agencies are so busy executing that they forget how to dig in and service. I met an AE recently who has worked on an account for two years (agency here, client in Chi) and only sees her clients on the rare occasions when they come to NYC; she has never been sent to Chicago. She told me her AS almost never goes as well. Awful.

  2. Travel is tough, expensive, and takes people out of their routine. And it is critical for building and retaining long term, profitable relationships. It doesn't matter if the trip is from NYC to Princeton or Boston to San Jose. On-site client time should happen at all levels of the organization at least every other month.

    1. Jackson, you are dead on in my opinion. Sadly, there are some managers who use the costs of travel and time as an excuse not to send people to see the client. It is short-sighted and may cost more in the long run.


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