Tuesday, May 22, 2018

What Happened To Account Management?

If clients want to get their money’s worth from their ad agencies, they should demand more from their account managers.  Unfortunately, over the past twenty-five years, account management has been emasculated.

Going back to the Mad Men days and before, account people had a very specific function that helped lead to great creative and media work.  Account executives (the term is used in its broadest sense for this post) worked closely with their clients and were marketing partners.  They did sales and marketing analysis, they went out on sales calls both at the retail level and corporately. As a result, they often knew more about the business than their actual clients.  All of this was to strengthen the relationship and build credibility so that the agency could sell its creative work.   

However, there was always an undercurrent of distrust between weak brand people and strong account people.  The concern was that giving away too much proprietary information might, somehow, hurt the client.  Many companies refused to share data feeling that it was not the agency’s business.  Many others did the minimum they had to in order to integrate their account people into their marketing and advertising.  Over many years, this situation spread and, gradually, marketing was mostly removed from the agency function.

Ad agencies established account planning, taking away the strategic function from their account people.  If one goes back to the beginnings of planning, that was not the intention.  The original planners were there to strengthen the communications function and to be the voice of the consumer, gaining insights into the market which, truthfully, many account people did not or could not do.  They were to be partners with both account and creative people.  But account people were often given the cold shoulder by planners who tended to relate better to the creative people, thereby weakening thie account function even further.

Fees, which became prevalent in the nineteen nineties, cut away agency profits.  This resulted in clients demanding that they be serviced only by senior people; unfortunately, this further limited the account function, since account directors and group directors were relegated to doing the administrative work that account executives had previously done.  Because so much of what junior account people did was handle billing and traffic, those functions were also removed from account people and given to lower paid project managers (or some other title).  

Media, while important, was always relegated to the bottom of the heap.  For instance, media was mostly the last to speak in creative presentations.  And, half a century ago, as media choices started to grow with the advent of cable, media buying services were developed.  Gradually, they gained a toehold in the business and became profitable.  The holding companies then separated media from their traditional agencies.  Over the last two decades media has become fractionated – spot, network, cable, digital, social, and many other aspects – which have complicated the media landscape in every aspect.  Media people always said that media was its own profession and in the mid-nineteen nineties, they got their way.  But, that took one other major function from account people.  Unfortunately, today, most account people have little or nothing to do with media planning, buying or analysis.  Media agencies have their own account people to handle clients and to deal with their traditional and digital agencies.  Even the media agencies owned by the holding companies have their own account people to deal with their traditional agencies.

All these changes served to weaken a very necessary function – working with clients to develop business and marketing and advertising strategy.  Today, we are starting to see that a lot of this work is being handed off to consultants, and as that happens, agency fees will get cut even more.  And account people may become superfluous.

It has become a vicious circle.

I fully believe that as account people have been removed from the creative and marketing process, the work coming out of agencies has become weakened.  Why?  Because account people were once fully involved with the creative process and were the source of information, insight and knowledge; that kind of insight helped creative people to do better, more effective work.  Today, since this function has been divided among dozens of people, many of whom work for outside companies.  It is very hard for an ad agency to have full control and oversight over the vision for its brands. And every brand needs a vision.

This is the vision that the pioneers of the business – Ogilvy, Reeves, Chiat, and many others – had that enabled their businesses to grow and thrive. The holding companies are just too big and complicated.


  1. Paul, I couldn't agree with you more. As an account person in the late 80's and early 90's working on such icon brands as AT&T (Reach Out and Touch Someone), US Army (Be All You Can Be) and General Foods International Coffee (Celebrate the Moments of Your Life) at icon agencies such as NW Ayer and Y&R I had to know how to craft both a strategy and a creative brief. We received training on how to create a strong strategies (at Ayer we had something called the “Ayer Plan”). We worked in partnership with both creative and media communicating the strategy and ensuring all involved stayed on strategy. The number of times I was told I needed to know the clients business better than they were many. Account management was the hub of the wheel. We represented the client to the agency and the agency to the client. Nothing could have moved forward without the account management function.

    1. Nancy, I love the hub of the wheel analogy. I was once true. Agencies now function without a hub because account people don't really run their accounts any more (at most big agencies).

    2. I agree 100%! We were always taught that, like Tinker Toys, account management was the center wheel with spokes out to all the other wheels. All were of equal importance, but the center one (account management) held them all together as a cohesive, functioning whole. We were tasked with knowing our clients' business better than they did, going on store checks, to bimonthly sales/share presentations, meeting with R&D, etc.

      There's little opportunity, or incentive, now for account people to stay in the agency world and grow to become those senior individuals that clients want to deal with. I wonder sometimes who the agency leaders will be in another decade, and what kind of experience/background they will have as a lot of the best and brightest are going client side or into other industries. Advertising isn't what it was in the 80's, and never will be again.

      I loved being in the agency world, but for a lot of the reasons you've blogged about recently moved client side 10 years ago.

  2. Over the past 18 years, Paul, I’ve written three editions of The Art of Client Service. For the past seven-plus years, I’ve blogged at Adventures in Client Service. For nearly 20 years I’ve made presentations and conducted workshops that pick up where my book and blog leave off.

    I have done these things to try to fill a gaping hole torn in the fabric of advertising agencies large and small, in New York and around the country, in old media and new, that have, as you point out, all but abandoned their account people.

    I’m not alone in this quest: Katia Viola in Brazil, Jenny Plant in the U.K., and others whose names elude me also are driven to help account people get better at what they do. Sadly, for many of the reasons you thoughtfully enumerate in your post – the rise of account planning, the introduction of project management, the dis-aggregation of media -- it is a struggle we cannot win.

    There are lots of reason why clients dismiss their agencies more rapidly than even before. Some clients will claim it is about the work, some will claim it is about the money, but all should know it comes down to trust. And why is trust so lacking between clients and their agencies?

    Over the years client people have become more knowledgeable, more capable, and more senior. Account people have become less knowledgeable, less capable, and less senior. As a result, clients have no one they can rely on for better, ideas, flawless execution, and unbiased counsel. Absent these things, trust, or the lack of it, becomes the unspoken issue between clients and their agencies. The result is all but inevitable.

    How do we restore trust? It’s a bit like building a brand; it takes time. But you have to start somewhere, and enlightened agencies will begin with a simple thing: training their people, either relying on capable and qualified internal performers, or on outside experts, or on a combination of both.

    The reality is, there are far too few of these enlightened shops, which means account management will continue in its doom loop, on a path to demise.

    1. Through my years in account management I observed that every single client, no matter how sophisticated, simply wanted to know who to call to both get things done and to resolve issues. That person could be senior or junior, depending on the problem. You are right in saying that the trust that used to exist has eroded significantly.

      That trust can only be rebuilt if agencies commit to doing so.

      Count me in if ever you need any help. I have been recruiting for over 30 years, but I was a really effective account guy.

    2. I suspect you're right, Paul; it's less about title and more about competence. Clients depended on me when was a junior account person, but I was TRAINED, if not by workshops, then by trial-and-error experience, which actually prompted me to write "Art" many years ago.

      I'd be happy to talk about your return to account managment, but for the last 20 years I have run a solo consulting/coaching/training practice under the aegis of Solomon Strategic.

  3. Apropos to Paul’s excellent headline question and column here, I posted this on Linkedin yesterday in commentary to a recent article in AdAge about the evolution of Account Management:

    “When I first started in the agency business at Ted Bates, there was no more Account Management-driven agency than Bates and the three-martini lunch was definitely on its way out. If the Client wasn’t happy, it was your fault. Yes, Ted Bates had one of the most amazing “Creative” records of any agency that’s ever existed (thanks largely to its proprietary USP philosophy), but in the end it was up to Account Management to know a good bit of EVERYTHING about EVERYTHING! Client sales, market share, research trends, out-of-stocks at the local market level, competitive sales promotions, price changes, new product introductions, copy testing scores, you name it. Today, they just seem like project managers to me (what we used to call "Traffick"). Don’t believe me? Just ask your Account Executive tomorrow, over the phone and in real-time, how your Brand is doing in Chicago or Beijing ... and WHY? Good luck!”


    1. Sorry Bill, but I would hardly call Bates a creative agency. It did produce effective advertising, but there is a big difference between creative and effective. Account people at Bates did what account people everywhere did.

    2. I guess it all depends on how one defines CREATIVE. David Ogilvy once famously said, “It isn’t creative unless it sells” and that’s still good enough for me. As for Bates’ creativity, how about M&Ms “Melts in your mouth, not in your hand”; Prudential’s “Get a piece of the rock”; Certs “Two mints in one”; Wonder Bread’s “Helps build strong bodies 12 ways”; Trident’s “4 out of 5 dentists recommend …”; Hertz’s “Superstar in rent-a-car”; U.S. Navy’s “It’s not just a job, it’s an adventure”; Rolaids “How do you spell relief? R-O-L-A-I-D-S”; the list goes on. That you “would hardly call Bates a creative agency” would certainly be news to Ogilvy and his brother-in-law, Rosser Reeves … the inventor and Godfather of the Ted Bates USP creative philosophy. And while one can argue that all account people at all agencies were/are the same, at least Bates account execs knew what a “Unique Selling Proposition” was/is. Yes, the USP was highly strategic, but it was the Creatives who defined and created it (usually copywriters).

    3. This comment has been removed by the author.

    4. Bill: For the record, David Ogilvy did not write that line. It was written by Alvin Hampel. Al was the worldwide creative director of Benton & Bowles and wrote, "It isn't creative unless it sells." as an apologia for the agency's poor creative reputation. In my opinion, it was a stroke of genius.

      I won't argue Bates's creativity with you. But I do admire your tenacious loyalty to them.

  4. In 1996, when we launched Lucent Technologies the client called me "the glue who held the account together." I would argue that we all get to define our job responsibilities.

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