In modern day marketing, the blurred lines between departments have diluted the art of account management. And yet, the need to closely partner with clients, to support them in solving their marketing challenges and provide strategic leadership, has never been greater. That is where powerful account management comes into play, and where the prioritization of account talent can set agencies apart.
In the past twenty years, the advertising agency landscape underwent a seismic shift in agency make-up and business model as digital marketing became more critical in the marketing mix.
Digital agencies that focused on technology, analytics, and web development started to dominate the industry, as traditional agencies sought to steer their ships to capture demand for lucrative digital projects including websites with content and analytics.
With this shift in our product came a rise in, and reliance upon, Project Management departments that specialize in running the show on digital marketing projects. Digital-first and traditional agencies alike invested in certified project managers, PM tools and software. Clients’ retainers started to change as they carved up their budgets to allow for app creation, web design and development, content creation, test & learn programs, analytics dashboards, and marketing automation systems.
As the retained client model shifted, so did the role of the traditional Account Manager, now partnered with, or in some cases pitted against, a Project Management counterpart to manage the client and the projects. In this melee, ambiguity between AM and PM grew and we witnessed the inevitable blurring of their disciplines. The gray areas between the two departments and their teams seemed to increase as duplicative efforts and toe-stepping crept into ways of working. Agencies worked hard to define the roles between each department in order to improve efficiency and bolster the partnership and morale between the two. AMs manage the budget, but PMs manage the burn. AMs manage the client and PMs manage the internal teams. AMs build the briefs while PMs build the timeline.
In the channel-neutral, multimedia, multi-disciplined melange that we operate in today, there has never been a greater need for a powerful Account Management team to lead accounts, steer the ship, and future-proof client relationships. Clients increasingly seek agency partners who act as a true extension of their internal teams, and it is the account person at the heart of that partnership. There is an art and discipline to managing long-term client relationships effectively, one that takes rigor and formality balanced with a thick skin and a warm heart. Beyond the excellent organization, communication, and administration skills, there are four tenets held by any account person worth their salt:
- Business partners
- Integrated marketers
Accountable to the nth degree
With the increased digital outputs and performance-based marketing plans, our industry has become more accountable than ever. From procurement-driven pitches and contracts, to daily analysis of marketing performance, we now have the ability to quantify the impact of our work and the volume of contracted hours used to deliver it. Client stakeholders are eager to qualify the outputs and outcomes of their agency partners in order to justify their marketing spend. All of which creates a need for accountability within the agency, that unfortunately, not every member will take on board.
And that is where a good Account Manager will stand out.
Account people who are willing to hold themselves responsible for the work that the entire team has produced are worth their weight in gold. They understand that the buck stops with them. They take every high and low on their account and they steady both client and internal teams when needed. And when everyone else seems to be on vacation or distracted by the World Cup, the Account person is the one who will dig deeper, work longer, argue more passionately, convince more compellingly and make it happen.
Clients need business partners
More than ever, clients are looking for trusted partners who understand their business, their nuances, and have an informed opinion to offer. Clients want their agency partners to act as an extension of their marketing teams, filling the gaps between their in-house expertise and available bandwidth. This is something that good agency leaders know and work to their advantage.
Getting close to the client’s business, by increasing knowledge and understanding of their product and data, creates a meaningful and empathetic partnership. It builds trust. It also provides direction and clarity in what can sometimes be a complicated landscape of stakeholders and decision makers.
Strong account people are the authority on their client’s business. They are focused on the endgame of marketing excellence and client satisfaction. “What are their goals and how can we get them there?” “How are we performing?” “How can we make our individual clients famous?” “What kind of press release could this generate?” They own the partnership from both a relationship and financial perspective. They know the ins and outs of the contracts and how to keep the agency healthy and clients happy. They understand their role in increasing agency revenue by growing their clients’ business and how client satisfaction, marketing performance, client retention and agency growth are all inextricably linked.
Account is the connective tissue
Clients seek partners who can handle an integrated mix of marketing workstreams. Develop brand strategies, research, and create deep understanding of the target audience to identify the correct channel mix of paid, owned and earned tactics, drive landing page and web traffic, build lead generation engines, nurture leads through the funnel, report back on performance and provide data-driven insights. To deliver deeply integrated campaigns, you need a deeply integrated and engaged account person at the heart of the work. There is no one else in the agency environment who is armed with the broad suite of knowledge on campaign goals, client objectives and workstreams that ensure everything knits together, and that channels are well taken care of and fully-integrated.
Account people are often the only team members that touch every step of the process, from business challenges to creation and evaluation. For them to be successful in facilitating smart, sharp solutions, they need to collaborate and foster a culture of collaboration around them. Campaigns succeed or fail on the quality of their integrated set-up and whether someone has thought through every possible step on the customer journey. And the best person in the agency environment to ensure all checks and balances are in place is the Account Manager.
Cruise directors, cheerleaders, motivators
In the groundhog day that is remote work and agency life, Account Management’s role as leaders of the pack has never been more valuable. They rally their teams, engage in the work, show up, and pay attention to every detail.
When creative and media teams are briefed to work on a new campaign, the role of the internal review before a client share-out is still a critical step in the process. And yet, we see more and more team members pulling back from internal meetings by showing up without their cameras on and remaining on mute for the whole call. Unforgivable. And certainly not a behavior you see in a good account person, whose raison d’etre is to ensure that the work will meet, nay, exceed client expectations before it goes out the door. They show up, cameras on, recaps of the brief ready, willing to participate in the discussion around the work and fine tune it for client review.
Their optimism and positivity power the account, and keep our internal and client sessions energized but focused. They make lemonade out of any lemons and keep their teams motivated, engaged and on track. They may be all business, but they know how to keep things light and bring the love. And sometimes the lattes.
Business leaders, integrated marketers, client whisperers, lemonade makers. There has never been a better time to be an account person. With different ways of working and blurring of marketing disciplines and agency departments, clients and agencies alike need people who partner well, who connect the dots, who lead the team and who shine a light. The future is bright for Account Management.