Advertising Age published a pathetic pep talk to account people from Johannes Leonardo Head of Account Services Emily Wilcox with a headline reading, “Account Service As We Knew It Doesn’t Cut It Anymore.” Um, account service hasn’t cut it since the 1980s. Wilcox made only one accurate statement: “The new account person must uber obsessed…” Yes, suits used to be good for paying the cab fares to client presentations. Now they cover the Uber rides. Hell, they’d be more useful serving as Uber drivers.
Account Service As We Knew It Doesn’t Cut It Anymore
Account leaders that drive both creativity and effectiveness are the key to unlocking brand transformation
By Emily Wilcox
Amid agency cost slashing and client in-housing, there's one thing on which almost everyone in the industry can agree: We don’t need account services people anymore. As someone who’s run accounts at a wide variety of agencies with all sorts of account executives, I hate to say this: I agree.
At least the account people of yesterday. They are an endangered species, and probably should be.
But if anything, the time is right for ad agencies to reinvent the discipline. If we do it right, the account services role won’t just be salvaged; it can become more integral to brands’ businesses and of greater strategic value than ever.
First, let’s talk about why account teams are under fire.
We know marketers scrutinize every dime they spend. Using data and analytics, everything is measured and quantified. That’s particularly true among brands’ procurement teams, which have spent the last decade putting ad agencies under pressure as they search for efficiencies. Unlike creatives (who make the ads) and media professionals (who buy ad space) what account executives “do” is hard to quantify. They become harder to justify and easy to cut.
For many years, the account person in many traditional agencies fit a certain profile. They moved work along. They maintained status reports and calendars and made sure projects got assigned to the right people. They put fires out. They kept the creatives on track. They championed the “work.”
Most importantly, they kept the clients happy. These days, however, what keeps the client happy is seeing their businesses grow.
When I’m looking to hire people, I ask why they wanted to get into this industry, what they know about their current and potential clients’ businesses. The answers can be highly revealing.
We ask those questions because we are looking for a new version of account people. Yes, they are organized and good with people and are creative thinkers. But more importantly, they are obsessed with business. They want to do work that makes an impact on their clients’ businesses.
This type of talent isn’t easy to find. To fill these roles we’ve hired MBA grads, lawyers, strategists and former client-side executives, as well as great account leaders from other agencies.
Clients and agency teams don’t need schedule keepers. They need thought leaders. The new account executive is a strategic consultant, too.
In fact, I’d argue that modern account people can be just as analytical and innovative as strategic executives in similar roles at the Deloittes and Accentures of the world. Yet these new account folks also grasp the nuances of creative briefs and getting the best out of multidisciplinary teams from inside and outside of agencies and brands—in ways consultants rarely do. We shouldn’t sell that ability short.
Of course, clients need to help us here. If brands truly want the most out of their agencies, they need to give access to whatever they need to make strategic decisions, such as proprietary data and high level business goals. Both sides have contributed to the devaluing of account executives’ role. If clients treat their agencies like vendors, the work they get back will reflect that.
The new account person must uber obsessed with their client’s business.
As I see it, the three traits of the account person of the future are:
1) They are smart, curious people who understand the complex businesses and marketing challenges of today.
2) They are doggedly focused on driving results for clients, not just churning out cool work. Truly “great” work is advertising that actually delivers on a marketers’ business goals. And great account people help define these goals upfront and lead their creative teams there—connecting great work with great results.
3) They position themselves at the center of their clients’ goals, making them accountable for ensuring strategic and creative consistency across all teams, including brands’ in-house agencies and other consultants and specialists. So I say, go ahead and take in house what you need to. Eliminate heavy overhead spent on the traditional notion of “client service” if that makes sense financially. Delegate busywork.
But don’t dismiss the idea of strong account people. They can be the secret weapon that helps your brand win and agencies thrive.
It’s fair to say that in the agency world, we often forget that we are in the business of building our clients’ businesses. The best agencies should aim to be indispensable to that mission. So if you just want to be an agency that shovels work around and is selling, maybe you don’t need account people. But if you care about and truly believe that business-minded creativity drives effectiveness and is impactful for clients, then you need great account people more than ever.
Emily Wilcox is head of account management at Johannes Leonardo