Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Dumbing Down Of Account People

I recently interviewed a terrific account guy who worked at a forty-person ad agency.  While never having worked at a big agency on a major brand, he could run circles around many of the account people at his level at the big agencies.  He has been at his agency for four years. In his role as an account executive he does everything – budgets, project management and traffic, strategic development, complete client contact, presentations and management, all kinds of production – he does the estimating, bidding, attended and managed the shoots (television, content and print).  

As an account executive, he had interviewed at one of the large network agencies and they told him that while he had the skills to be hired, they would not give him the freedom to do all the things he has been doing.  He was also told that if he ended up there he would not attend shoots because that was reserved for account supervisors and above.  Strategic development was entirely the providence of account planners and, except for competitive analysis, he would not be presenting to clients.  He would only see his clients for major meetings – if he were allowed to attend.

Of course he did not want to work there or, now, because of this, for any of the larger agencies.   He took a pass.  One would think that a major agency would be anxious to hire an account person with these skills and experiences.  There is nothing at a big agency he couldn't learn in a few weeks or months.

Ironically, he reminded me of account people I used to know.  When I was an account guy, I attended client meetings and shoots from the time I was an assistant.  I managed print production as an AAE and started managing television production shortly after.  I was always involved with strategy, and drafted my first client marketing plan when I was an AAE (do account people even write marketing plans anymore?). Even as a junior, I was always made to feel that the accounts I worked on were totally mine and I was absolutely responsible for them, even if there were several layers above me who had to oversee and approve my work.
Why are agencies taking this kind of responsibility and sense of ownership away from junior account people?  Why do ad agencies limit their enthusiasm and their growth and development?  It makes no sense.  It is almost like the big agencies are beating the enthusiasm and passion out of their people.

Now I understand that different accounts, like Procter, have rules for who can do what and what each level can and cannot do.  I understand that an AAE or AE or even an account supervisor cannot attend a shoot in Argentina.  But wherever possible, agencies need to insure that the enthusiasm and training of its people is maintained at high levels.

I don’t think that the policies that limit account people are necessarily  intentional.  I think the client fee and procurement system is such that they limit people's time, even if they are 100% allotted to the account.  But I do think that the administration of these rules has been misinterpreted and it is easier for agencies to adopt a one size fits all policy, which is easier to administer (e.g. assistant account executives do not attend shoots, even if they happen to be around the corner from the office). Agency management must put its foot down and pay attention to the development and training of its people.  If they did, it would lower turnover by increasing enthusiasm and commitment,  which, in turn, would increase profitability.

Account people, who are the first line of client contact, should be allowed to have as much responsibility as they can handle.  It would also help clients to increase their respect of agencies and the people who work there.


  1. It’s interesting how “training” in our industry has been turned upside down.

    It used to be that the large agency’s with their training programs and disciplined processes, were the place to be and learn.

    Today, I think a junior person will learn more, faster at a small agency -assuming you are working on a serious piece of business.

  2. As a senior account person at a few big agencies I could not agree more...but a big part of the blame lies in the laps of the Clients. I can not tell you how many times I could not have juniors at meetings with Clients AT THE AGENCY! Occasionally, I could get them to shoots in NY but just as a stop by. In this everchanging digital and social world I thought it essential to have some younger voices in the room. But Clients are in a procurement state of mind. They look at body count and see $$. Unfortunately, the Agency world caves to Client dictates which then become the status quo. A pity as I actually ran a shoot as an AE back in the day.

    1. @dotcomm212: I know you are right. The strange part of the "client procurement state of mind," as you put it, is that even when people are 100% on an account, clients still don't want them in meetings. I can't figure that out.

  3. Like Paul, I too am saddened by the lack of training at agencies of all sizes today. Whereas smaller agencies may afford a junior AE more responsibilities and opportunities for a highly diversified learning experience in a very short period of time, I guarantee that they usually miss out on the basic training or “boot camp” experience generally found at an Ogilvy or DDB (David Ogilvy’s and Bill Bernbach’s “Bibles” pretty much required reading if one wants to move onward and upward.)

    It’s true that larger agencies are far more structured and bureaucratic in their division of labor, but when any agency achieves enough “scale” in operations it must be so! Just as an apprentice carpenter must first master all tools and earn their stripes before attending the “ribbon-cutting” ceremony at a finished construction site (not everyone is an architect), AEs and ASs must learn their lessons too. It takes time and patience, and learning, to be the best at anything, and there are very few short-cuts, if any.

    As I understand the case of Paul’s young turk, he wasn’t rejected by the large agency because it didn’t appreciate his skills and experience … just told him that he wouldn’t be in charge of things like brand strategy, production, and creative shoots anymore. Which sounds exactly right to me. A “Walk before you run kind-of-thing”. Not to mention the existence of an established agency CCO or ECD; Chief Strategy Officer; Senior Producer; DP or Director; et al., already in the hierarchy.

    As for attending client meetings … Everyone in an agency brand account group can’t attend every meeting. If they did, who would be left to actually get things done before midnight? And let’s not forget the traditional (and still true today) pecking order of client/agency relations. The AE talks to a client Brand Manager. The AS talks to the client DOM or Category Manager. The MS talks to the client VP-Marketing. The agency EVP talks to the client CMO. The agency President talks to the client President. And the agency CEO talks to the client CEO. Again, sounds exactly right to me, given the division of labor, individual responsibilities, time constraints, and final accountability required from all to THE CLIENT (and for clients, that's company shareholders!)

    Yeah, it would be great if everyone, at every level, could purport to be the best at everything, but that promise is usually made by agencies without a very deep bench. Bill Crandall

  4. And what is all this "Back in the day" talk? Today is today. Let's just fix it! BC

  5. Bill,

    Actually, as I read Paul's story, the young turk wasn't told he couldn't be "in charge of" strategy, production, shoots, etc, but that he couldn't participate in them. After apprenticing at Burnett as an AAE and AE in the 80's, I too would have felt "invited out" of all the things that make (or made) an account management career fulfilling.

  6. Hi Phil … No need to parse words here. I said “in charge” and you said “participate”. The actual verbatim quote from Paul was “… they would not give him the FREEDOM to do all the things he has been doing.”

    And since Paul went on to say “In his role as an account executive he does everything – budgets, project management and traffic, strategic development, complete client contact, presentations and management, all kinds of production – he does the estimating, bidding, attended and managed the shoots (television, content and print)”, I kind of figured he was accustomed to being “in charge” of things.

    With my earlier post in mind I’ll close with this … When I was an AE at Ted Bates, I wasn’t “in charge” of anything but ME. I did what was asked or expected of me to support those with more seniority and in-depth experience. If I was invited to a creative development meeting, I felt honored to be included, but I didn’t expect it. That’s just the way it was … and still is at top global shops handling top global brands. My job was keeping the brand budget; doing Nielsen sales/share competitive marketing analyses; drafting copy testing reports for my management and clients; doing retail store checks; and basically trying not to get fired from such a great agency that offered me so much more to learn!

    All of which is to say, everyone at an agency, however large or small, should expect opportunities for personal and professional growth by dint of their hard labor toward the agency’s common cause. But “rank” in the food chain is an earned merit and always should be respected. Bill Crandall

  7. Exactly, Paul. Great article. People value being valuable. Why do you think big agencies have to pay more for the same talent? We seldom lose in head to head offers, and we're not matching their dollars, just winning on opportunity. This is particularly important with millennials, who don't have as much patience for paying your dues or waiting your turn.

    1. John: I always believed that small agencies ultimately produce better advertising executives. Because there aren't so many levels and resources, people who work at smaller shops are trained to be more resourceful. Big agencies, when they are smart, pay more for the same talent because they are resourceful. That was my disappointment with the story as I wrote it - the big agency should have gobbled this person up and then figured out how to break their own rules to see that he did well and was valued.

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  9. Sad that there is almost no training for entry level AAE's. At Boston University we have a student operated ad agency, AdLab. It uses the agency model servicing real clients. AE's run their account, write account backgrounds and creative strategies, file status reports and work with creatives, planners and production completing projects. There are time lines and the reality of working with clients who must approve all work. They don't have the joy of the vast amounts of budget and expense paper work they will encounter in their first job, but at least they get a realistic taste of the life of an account executive.

    1. Tobe: I wish there were more programs like BU's AfLab. I always see people with this on their resume. It is great training and preparation.

  10. ... The advertising industry still cannot explain why people buy... I can... But they can't...


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