From Account Management to Client Leadership

Raise your hand if you remember when agency account leaders were great strategic partners, made creative work better, fought hard for time, money and great ideas, and were the most trusted advisors of their clients. As an industry, it’s high time we got back to having confident (dare I say) badass account leadership as the norm, not the exception.

We’ve all seen the articles proclaiming that account management is dead. And the inevitable counter point that’s akin to some version of Mark Twain’s classic line: ‘reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.’

Death is a definite no. But we really ought to have a better handle on what’s ailing Account Management.

Most of the information we found is qualitative, so we fielded our own anonymous survey to better quantify perceptions of the effectiveness of Account Management in agencies today. Our sample thus far is mostly independent agency leaders across all disciplines, including account management. While the data is still coming in, we can already see validation for some of the anecdotal feedback we hear regularly.

Roughly two-thirds (64%) of all respondents agree or agree completely that there’s confusion between the role of account management and project management. There was even greater consensus (69%) that promoting to avoid attrition has put juniors into senior roles for which they are not qualified.

Clearly, these issues are not sustainable and need to be addressed, like, yesterday. What’s interesting is that these problems are bigger than the individuals in account management. These are organizational/operational issues and decisions that are contributing to the account groups’ inability to thrive. The following verbatim punctuates this insight from a different angle.

I think we’ve failed Account Management industrywide. Both the agency and the client teams have turned them into “glorified delivery boys and girls,” often culturally robbing them of opportunity to add any real value.

Founder & Chief Creative Officer

On the positive side, roughly half of all respondents agree that some/not all account teams are functioning in a strategic capacity and making higher-level contributions. And this rings true with real life. Clearly there remain bona-fide superstars in our midst. But there are also an awful lot of teams who are underperforming and people whose full potential has yet to be unleashed.

I have 25+ years in account management and loved (nearly) every minute. But I had the benefit of great, foundational training from a boss with a big agency background and big brand creds. Participation in the strategic direction of one’s accounts was a fundamental requirement of the job, and so was idea generation. You dared not show up at a planning session without new thinking and rationale for why it was a good idea. It was competitive too, because business is competitive, and we weren’t f’ing around. Tough love? You better believe it.

But that’s when the fun began. It was exhilarating to be a contributing member of a super smart team that enjoyed the thrill of kicking ass with, and on behalf of, our clients. It was never easy, but it was also never dull and completely addicting.

Why the reminiscing? Because in this case, a look back is necessary. This once-great discipline has lost more than a few steps. In general and as a collective, we’ve gone backward, which is why, in the verbatims of our study, we see this sentiment:

“Cannot always justify the cost, and the value it brings.” Principal

“[Challenged by] perceived value of Account Management, internally and externally.” President/Owner

And why wouldn’t that be the case, given the overwhelming agreement that the role is now confused (and therefore obviously duplicative) with Project Management?

If we believe that words matter (and we do, because we’re communications specialists) and if our goal is to change the mindset of people (and it is, both within the agency and among our clients), then we’re looking at a major rebuild from the ground up. And by that, I mean starting with what we call ourselves and what we establish as our purpose for existing. The partnership with Project Management will take care of the ‘management of things,’ (scoping, resourcing, budgeting, timeline, etc.). The unique opportunity we have is to be the business and brand specialist, deeply immersed in the client’s industry, brand, and business, resulting in a shareable journey of enhanced knowledge and understanding that benefits the entire team. This is how we separate ourselves from Project Management and drive real, meaningful value for our internal teams and clients. And that, my friends, is Client Leadership.


Get Client Leadership tips in your inbox