Is Account Management Dead?
We hear this question over and over again from both clients and agencies alike: “Do we need Account Directors?” Are they glorified salespeople or just people-pleasing project managers? How do you ensure a client sees their value and will pay for their services?
Full disclosure, a colleague was an Account Director at a global experiential marketing agency. For many years, they struggled with justifying their role, getting clients to pay for their expertise, finding their place on the team and ultimately ensuring they were adding value. They’d seen the role work successfully -- and fail miserably -- and were hyper-conscious of the pitfalls and challenges. But Account Management dead? The rumors of its death are greatly over-stated.
For the record, we’re not here to justify the role of Account Management on every account. We believe that’s too narrow a way of looking at our business and we cannot treat every client, every project and every account the same. Different clients require different solutions – which falls on agency leadership to identify and staff accordingly. That being said, in many cases the role of Account Management isn’t just important, it’s mission critical to the success of an account. So – how do we know when an account person is needed or not?
The Unneeded Account Director
Let’s start with the low hanging fruit first; when do you NOT need Account Management? In our experience, you don’t need a dedicated account person when you have a project-based, repeat client with minimal or no growth potential. The agency team is a well-oiled machine who knows what the client wants and executes flawlessly (which is why the client is so dependable!). The client has a static budget, the account isn’t going to grow and doesn’t need someone “keeping an eye out for opportunities”.
This type of client can take many forms, but with the right team in place and the right level of seniority, you don’t need an account person. In fact, the account person will simply get in the way. The client won’t pay for them because they see no value; the team will sometimes forget to talk to them because they don’t need them; and the account person becomes more insecure or (worse) angry because they feel lost and without purpose. To note, in this scenario, you still need to identify the key point of contact for the client, it just isn’t an “account person”.
But that doesn’t mean that account management is dead. As mentioned earlier, there are times the account role is critical and I have distilled them into three main situations:
1. One Account, Lots of Moving Pieces
You’ve found that Shangri-La account that you’ve dreamed about: multiple business units, different types of projects with different clients, lots of legs where you can really grow your business in one account. All these moving parts need one conductor, clients need one point of contact, and project teams need one clear leader.
In this situation, the Account Director (AD) becomes the face of the agency to the client and the internal voice of the customer to the project teams. The AD provides consistency, over-arching vision and communication clarity. The AD is a part of each project – strategically and not in the weeds – that’s close enough to troubleshoot issues, look for efficiencies across projects and identify new opportunities to discuss with the client. This central position becomes incredibly valuable to the agency team as well as the client, so its value is easy to see and justify payment for.
2. Challenging Clients
Of course we know all clients are challenging in their own way. On the agency-side we always like to tell our war stories about difficult clients – each one of us thinking we can outdo the next. These stories get pretty outlandish, but all kidding aside, there are “challenging clients” and then there are CHALLENGING CLIENTS. The ones in all-caps need an Account Director.
The incredibly demanding clients, the ones who plan poorly or have a boss who loves chaos (and thinks it makes for a “creative” environment), who makes unrealistic demands (that somehow have to be met), or who provokes your team by speaking harshly or dismissively - all need a strong AD. This client needs someone to stand up to them, calm them down, and then partner with them by understanding the need or listening to the voiced frustration. The AD then leads the charge to finding the right solution - one that answers both the client’s and the team’s needs so the success of the project, the agency, and the client, isn’t in jeopardy.
In this situation, with everyone & everything moving at lightning speed to respond to the challenging client (who you know will identify and call-out any misstep), the Account Director is critical. They review everything prior to the client getting eyes on it to ensure accuracy and thoroughness. They’re involved in all decisions to make sure the client’s POV is considered and answered. Plus, they’re communicating regularly with the client to reduce frustration, ensure alignment and reduce surprises - all of which will protect the team from client blow back. The AD role here is incredibly important as a partner to the client and a leader to the team - protecting them, guiding them and supporting them, so that all attitudes stay positive and all focus is on delivering the best service and product possible.
3. Hybrid Skill Sets
Some of the best Account Directors are able to play a hybrid role – adding value and billability while also acting as the account lead. For example, many accounts cannot support a strategist but a strategic AD could play both roles. Similarly, some ADs are strong Project Managers, so they can manage budgets, timelines, staffing, etc. – acting as both the Production & Account leads on the project. This hybrid role can also create staffing efficiencies and save the client time and money.
Many marketing ADs play hybrid roles. However, it’s much harder to do when complex projects, like large scale live events, are being produced. The key is understanding the complexity of what’s being produced and then staffing appropriately.
The Final Piece of the Puzzle
There’s one final piece of the Account Management puzzle that is often over-looked: an Account Director must embody these critical attributes & skill sets to ensure success for client and agency:
· Flexibility and great problem-solving skills;
· Lack of ego: The AD cannot become a choke point. They must be willing & able to allow others on the team to talk to the client when appropriate. However, they must also be willing to fall on the sword when required - take the heat and protect the team;
· Empathy for the client and team;
· Ability to see the big picture and understand the business implications (for both client & agency).
Even when appropriately staffed, without these skills, the Account Director role can fail as can the project itself.
Account Management isn’t dead. It’s been at times misused, inappropriately staffed and poorly defined, but that doesn’t mean we should remove the role entirely. It’s time to reset expectations, take a good, hard look at each account so you can identify staffing needs, growth potential and where it makes sense to enhance a team with an Account Director. When the stars align Account Management can drive incredible growth for your agency.