Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Time To Allow Account Management To Do Its Job Again

There is no question in my mind that fees have truly hurt the client/agency relationship.  And while clients pay the bills and now make the rules, agencies are not fighting back.  They agree to fees that are too low simply to gain or keep the business, but have to cut back on servicing in order to make a profit or break even because of those low fees. 
I truly believe that the holding companies have allowed this to happen to their agencies in order to gain business and revenues, regardless of profits.  In fact, their agencies may be losing money and losing out to other services from consultancies to freelancers.  The holding companies, in their race to appease shareholders, have commoditized the business.

I know many stories which indicate that this is so.  One that is particularly relevant is the new president who quickly found that his agency was losing money on an account; they were simply not paying enough and, in addition, no one who worked on it liked them. When the president went to the client and asked for a higher fee, the client refused and so, on the spot, he fired the client. He promised that no staff cuts would be made and, in fact,; the whole incident was great for morale.  Meanwhile, the holding company had a fit and told the president that he had no right to fire the client without holding company permission; the holding company needed the revenue, despite the actual loss on the account.  Of course that is absurd. The president explained to the holding company CEO and CFO that he was, by contract, responsible for the profitability of the agency and his own bonus depended on the profits.  He told the holding company that if they wanted the account, they should call the client and get the account to hire another of its agencies.  They never made the call.

It is a great example of what effective account management can contribute.

Now when someone owns you, it is difficult, but agencies have to find a way to get back to their roots.  Account management has been weakened to the point where it is almost unnecessary. The irony is that I never met a good creative person who did not value an equally talented account person. That is why, even to this day, most new agencies are partnered and started with both creatives and an account person.

I am shocked when I interview junior account people who rarely, if ever, visit their clients, even those who are local.  Juniors are no longer taught how to dig into their businesses so that they become a valuable resource for their clients.  As a result, many clients don’t see any value in their junior account people or sharing vital information with their account executives and supervisors.  The more senior account people are so busy just getting work out that they, too, don’t really learn their clients business, so that all they can do is day-to-day service with not much value added.

A few years ago, I asked an account supervisor when the last time she had lunch with her client.  She had been on the account for four years. Her answer was that she never, in those years had lunch alone with her counterpart.  I asked her when was the last time she spent a day with her client – alone, just the two of them, working on a project.  It had never happened.  So I begged her to call her client and just go to visit them (in New Jersey, so no big deal).  I told her to tell her brand person that she just wanted to spend more time with her and get to know the business better and had no specific agenda.  The account supervisor was actually reluctant, fearing that the management supervisor she reported to would be angry and not approve her car rental.  I assured her that it would work out and the auto rental would get approved.

It took a little convincing on my part, but she did it.  And guess what?  She spent the day just hanging. It was a really successful day that resulted in her getting closer to her client both business wise and personally.  And she was actually able to make a contribution at a packaging meeting.  When she got back to the agency her supervisor actually did give her a hard time, but approved the car rental.  The visit was so beneficial that the client involved her in many projects that she had previously been excluded from.  Seven or eight months later when the account was moved to another agency, the account supervisor was the only person asked to move with the account.  She also got a promotion.

There is no substitute for getting to know the client and their business.

The more visible the agency is to its clients, the better the relationship.  And this is the responsibility of account management.  It can’t be done by creative or planners or project management. 
Strong and well trained account management can pay significant dividends.


  1. Many years ago I started my brand marketing career in Account Management at a top-ten worldwide agency, working on “sophisticated” consumer packaged goods (CPG) brands. Virtually all of my brand management clients had MBAs in Marketing, as did I and most of my fellow agency account managers. And, of course, Account Management was expected to really know the client’s business inside and out. But the real and underlying common thread between and among all of us (both client and agency alike) was a fundamental knowledge of MARKETING. The 4Ps, if you will. A body of knowledge that transcended sector, category or brand expertise. Basic marketing principles that could be transferred and applied to any business because our university education was rooted in, you guessed it … MARKETING. Yet today, almost anybody can be in Account Management, irrespective of educational background. A BA or MA in English Literature, no problem. A BS or MS in Computer Science, no problem and all good. But NO specific and sustaining knowledge of Marketing beyond future on-the-job learning experience. All of which is to say, when agency Account Managers know as much as their clients about the essentials of TOTAL Brand Marketing, maybe then clients will take Account Management more seriously. Till then, the appropriate and well-deserved term is Account Service (as in “servant” … not “thought leader”).

    1. Sorry, I disagree. I was a great marketer and very good account person and did not have an MBA. In fact, as a recruiter for 30+ years - starting in the 80's when account management was still strong - MBA's were not given any specific advantage. On CPG accounts, if the client had an MBA or Masters, we sometimes looked for account people with the same degrees. But mostly what counted was account people who knew marketing intuitively - and there were lots of really good account people who did not have advanced degrees. They learned their clients' business and were able to make a great relationship and a big contribution.

  2. I can think of three English majors I know right now who own successful independent agencies in Manhattan. After getting your foot in the door, good account work is hardly dependent on having an MBA or even academic knowledge of marketing. It’s a function of curiosity, intelligence, street smarts, leadership skills, having a nose for making money, creativity, being a quick learner and interpersonal skills. A computer science major could do it just as easily as someone majoring in philosophy, if either were so inclined. I once hired an account guy because he wrote poetry and played guitar in a garage band. Last I looked, he was running advertising for a major global technology company.

  3. To Paul and Bob … Both of you guys make very good points, but you seem to have missed mine. That is, why client Brand Management doesn’t regard or embrace Account Management like they used to (which I thought was one of Paul’s main points in his original article.) My referencing MBAs was simply to illustrate how agency account managers used to be the mirror image of their clients and now they’re not. Of course people can succeed in Account Management without a business degree, i.e., BS, BBA or MBA, but then their knowledge of Marketing becomes a function of on-the-job experience over years. Nothing wrong with that, but it takes time and depends on the type of accounts one works on; e.g., automotive, pharma, high tech, hospitality, or financial services vs. CPG. Another point I’d like to add now is that I was referring to an MBA in MARKETING; not MBAs Finance, Accounting, Management, Operations Research, et al (which like Marketing, are highly specialized areas of study.) As for Paul’s point about Marketing being “intuitive”, just tell that to Procter & Gamble - the world’s #1 advertiser.

  4. I take your point Anon. Incidentally, I have a business degree in marketing. It helped me at the beginning. And I can’t say with any certainty I would have been perceived as credible coming into an agency interview with, say, a degree in kinesiology, no matter how hard I tried or how creative I was.
    I also knew enough coming in to manage a budget; oversee studies; read and write Nielsen reports and most importantly -- that marketing is about what your audience wants, not about what you, the marketer, want. (Although the real game is bending the former to the latter.) I was pre-trained, so to speak, which meant I was ready to work on day one, or an efficient hire, relatively speaking.
    I also get what you mean about client bonding. I’ll never know whether what I accomplished would have been possible if I had majored in, say, French Literature. I did know where my blue chip packaged goods MBA brand manager clients lived, so to speak.
    Having said that, I now teach in a university humanities department. I routinely meet kids majoring in subjects like history, language, or biology. Any of them, sorting for reality, are capable of being account managers. Would their (business) careers benefit from a few classes in accounting, finance, marketing, law and operations? Absolutely. But do they need this school-work to succeed? It depends on how you define success; the nature of the student; and the prejudices of hiring managers.
    Most surprising to me as an ex-business guy and something I didn’t realize until I entered academia, is just how well studying Shakespeare, Kant, ameba’s or galaxies teaches you to think. I now believe my business education trained me to think in only one very specific way about one very specific set of criteria focused on one very specific outcome. It was limiting in a way, depending on the circumstance.
    You can learn just as much about selling soap from reading Shakespeare as you can about pricing from reading Kotler. And in the right kind of pinch, Shakespeare may offer a path Kotler could never imagine.

    1. Bob … Thanks so much for your very thoughtful reply and I greatly appreciate your comment about the value of certain Liberal Arts studies. Looking back on my own undergraduate and graduate curricula - which were largely focused on marketing, economics, and quantitative methods - what I find most interesting now is that my favorite course was American Business History. If not for it, I would never have learned about the early icons of American industry; the development of U.S. anti-trust law; the importance of the Erie Canal and railroad refrigerator car to interstate commerce; etc. Fascinating stuff to know and sometimes I wish I had majored in History altogether. But then I wouldn’t know what I know about business and Marketing, and I certainly wouldn’t have been hired at Ted Bates in Account Management in the ‘70s, when an MBA was generally required to work on the agency’s premier CPG accounts, e.g., Warner-Lambert/American Chicle, Colgate-Palmolive; Standard Brands; Carter-Wallace; et al.

    2. I too wanted to major in history. My father forbid it! So yes, I get you. There are many times when I’m grateful I know what I know about business, especially when I’m in faculty meetings with people who haven’t a clue. On the other hand, I have much more freedom to think and explore now that I’m no longer responsible for revenue and profit. I like the trade off, but I sure am glad I worked in advertising.

  5. Bob … Since we’ve had such a rich exchange of commentary between us here, I thought identifying myself would be the right and polite thing to do. And as a member of Hofstra University’s Zarb School of Business Advisory Board, Marketing & International Business, since 2014, I want to wish you well in your new pursuits in academia. Like you, I love the environment. Just not ready to leave the marketing and agency business quite yet. Best, Bill Crandall

  6. Hi Bill, I appreciate the introduction. Checked you out on Linked In. We’ve never worked at the same place. But I was at Geer DuBois in the late ‘70’s. Same elevator bank as SSC&B. We probably crossed paths there. Best, Bob


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