Be a Sam, don’t be a Lara :: The importance of stellar Account Management in the age of Advertising 2.0

((This article, originally commissioned by the Deloitte CMO program, duplicated here with permission))

I’m a maker at heart; I love to build and create. I love to tinker and experiment, and I love to stand back to take pride in the results.

While I consider Account Management a creative endeavor, relationships, as a result, are a bit too intangible to satisfy my own compulsion to produce. Sure, I’ve informally dabbled over the years, and for about 18 months, I ran a $2mm account at an agency (where I was a partner) back in Denver. But, I’m more of a tourist than a resident in this world. Hence, this is an opinion piece, an educated opinion, but just an opinion.

When I sat down to do some research and brush up on the state of Account Management in the turbulent world of modern advertising, my hunch was confirmed. There’s not much out there. It’s shocking how little attention our industry pays to such a critical role.

Account managers are the conduit between those with the work and those who are eager to do the work. Yet, in recent times, the perception of the role has somehow morphed into “Client Custodian” as compared to the hugely important function that drives growth and agency health.

Before we move on, since this piece is meant for the uninitiated, let’s ground ourselves in a bit of history. At some point in the late 1800s, the model of what we consider an “Advertising Agency” took form. Media outlets like magazines and newspapers had an inventory of eyeballs that they wanted to rent out, and the agencies had a list of products/services that they needed to sell. Natural, simple, and synergistic. And it stayed that way even in the 1940s when television came along – the reach and penetration were on a new scale, but the publishing model remained the same.

In the 50s and 60s, advertising moved into a romantic age when the ads got smart, creative, and clever, and at some point, the concept of “Agency of Record” became the preferred model. AOR is just a fancy way to say that the client and the agency have a retainer agreement and the client doesn’t typically work with any other marketing or advertising agencies.

Despite the financial commitment, this is good for the client as it means having one company responsible for all your marketing needs – which provides peace of mind, efficiency, and often better work.

The AOR model was great for agencies, too, as it offered stability through guaranteed repeat business and full control over client strategy and production.

In the late 90s, even as the Internet grew from a curiosity to a legit medium, with a few exceptions, digital marketing served as a mere extension of traditional advertising. We continued to sell products the same way we always had, with ads. They might be in a little box at the top of your browser rather than on your TV, but they’re still just ads. This continued for almost a decade. Many Creatives, Account Managers and Producers simply bolted digital activations onto traditional campaigns and managed to avoid real innovation. Agencies of the past weren’t set up to disrupt and innovate; they were designed to tell stories with words and images, compel a response, and build on past success.

Enter Advertising 2.0. Finally, somewhere in the mid-2000s, as platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube took hold, the Internet solidified into a new advertising channel with its own rules and mounds of new opportunities. For the first time, we started seeing viral marketing, user-generated campaigns, and a focus on the use of social media to engineer consumer sentiment. Along with this shift came an unprecedented amount of data, a suite of analytical tools, and tons of new targeting techniques. The Internet now empowered marketers to break free of the one-to-many “spray and pray” approach of Advertising 1.0 and get personal with their message. This meant that traditional agencies had a lot to learn.

Fully integrated advertising is now the new normal, and it works because it’s evolved to deliver:

  1. Content that consumers consider valuable and relevant
  2. High quality, engaging Creative in both form and format
  3. Campaigns that avoid interrupting or detracting from the user’s native experience

In a nutshell, this is where the industry has been and basically where we are today. Now, let’s get back to Account Management and why it may be the most critical function in modern agencies.

Account Management has four primary responsibilities:

  1. Sell and develop work that moves product and grows the client’s brand over time.
  2. Build personal bonds with each client and nurture relationships.
  3. Be profitable and generate revenue for the agency.
  4. Intimately understand the client’s industry and provide insight to the Strategy, Creative, and Production teams.

So, sell stuff, grow what you sold, keep the client engaged, be the internal steward of the brand, and make the agency money. This probably seems like a lot of (potentially contradictory) responsibility, but let’s look at the power of getting it right.

Influence over the kind of work that your agency sells has an enormous impact on everyone and everything.

Let’s say I’m a producer at Dork Digital, a shop out of Minneapolis whose big client is Stern Pinball in Chicago. We love Stern, and we hire people who we think will be happy and successful working on the Stern business. These tend to be gamer types, non-corporate individuals, and those who like to tip a few pints at the pub after a long day.

Now, imagine that our leadership eventually gets nervous about 75% of our work coming from one client and they ask our senior Account Managers to hit the streets and bring in some fresh accounts. They know that it’s essential that we avoid letting our sales funnel get to the point of desperation – and if Stern leaves for some reason, we’ll get desperate fast. Desperation dissolves the luxury of being discerning and that’s death in this business. Our execs are no dummies.

Here’s how this might play out.

Number one, Account Manager Sam searches for small to mid-sized companies with similar consumer demographics as Stern. She compiles a list of twenty-two growing businesses whose digital presence needs an upgrade. She shares the list on Dorknet (our intranet dashboard), asking if anyone is familiar with these companies. Since they’re all “Stern adjacent,” of course, we’re familiar, and a few of us even have friends who work at these places. Phone calls happen, and predictably the Stern name goes a long way with this list of prospects. Soon we have three pitches lined up. We get to work. A couple of months later, we’ve won a new client, a casual apparel brand out of San Diego called Loaf, whose products we already love. They need a new website and a social media community manager. Bingo.

This measured and diligent approach took three months and only produced one new client. But, because our people are excited about the new brand and familiar with their customers, the work is immediately excellent, and the client relationship flourishes. It not only contributes to our bottom line and alleviates some of our dependence on Stern, but our internal culture and competence grow even stronger. Next quarter Sam runs the same exercise against the Loaf demo, and we target a new but related list of businesses – the cycle continues.

Alternatively, Lara, our Account Director/ Sales Manager, fires up Salesforce and starts to cold call every contact in her network. She lines up pitches with anyone who agrees to see us. A flooring manufacturer, a homeopathic cold medicine brand, the local government in the town where she grew up, an investment firm. If they’ll let us in the door, we’re going. These may be great companies with great people, and they could end up being good clients, but we’re not starting with a strong “why” and this makes everything harder.

Imagine the quality of pitch deck that Lara gets for this set of companies compared to those that Sam received. Imagine the performance of those on-site with the client trying to fane enthusiasm and talk with authority about selling cold medicine compared to Sam’s pitches with the Stern adjacent prospects.

What does Lara’s closing percentage look like compared to Sam’s?  These clients have never heard of Stern Pinball, so we get no boost there, and the sale will likely come down to price as a significant factor. We’re largely commoditized in Lara’s scenario. Lastly, what would you expect the resulting work to look like if we manage to land one of these companies? It won’t be bad; we are pros after all, and we don’t need an ideal situation to do good work, but it’ll be harder to be great.

That’s the power of the right work coming in the door.

Remember the retainer-based concept of Agency of Record? Unfortunately, those days are all but over. It’s more common for an Advertiser to have a “family of agencies” to whom they dole out chunks of work. Even with long term clients, we typically go project-to-project and we have to fight for and justify every dollar. This has changed the Account Manager’s role drastically and, in many ways, has made it even more critical.

While the AOR arrangement was guaranteed revenue and the agency’s job was to make sure the work was excellent, sold product and won some awards – these days, the client often tells the agency what they want, what they’re willing to pay and then leaves the agency with the tasks of figuring out how to deliver. It’s a “take it or leave it” world.

In this new landscape, a great relationship with the client could mean the difference between producing what they asked for and successfully convincing them to take a risk and make what they really need. You may have a building full of great creative minds, but if the Account person is unable to bring the client along on a journey and make them believe, their talent never sees the light of day.

Relationships also contribute to securing a fair price over breaking even, creating a predictable workstream over selling a one-time project, and building a mutual partnership over engaging in a predatory client/vendor situation.

Before we move on to Profit, let’s jump back to the impact of a good sales strategy for a second. In the example above, who do you think would bring more natural, long-lasting, and profitable relationships to the agency? Sam, who’s bringing in work that we all love with companies whose products we use and employees that are “like us”? Or Lara, who will sign whatever comes along and is forced to manufacture interest?

This is trickier. You can be profitable with Lara’s approach as long as your sales funnel remains healthy, and you have people to do the work. However, as already mentioned, this approach tends to make it harder to produce great results – and mediocrity doesn’t generate incoming calls or build a reputation. You’ll be a vendor to your clients, rather than a trusted partner. Your opportunities will be limited to what they decide to give you, and likely, you’ll be replaced as soon as a cheaper or more convenient option comes along. One may even find that any cultural “it factor” that an agency enjoys may erode quickly under Lara’s approach. Bleak, yes, but preventable.

To be clear, Sam’s road is no picnic either. Even with the best clients in the world, great relationships, and work that your team adores, making a profit is a daily grind and an endless struggle. There are those “tough conversations” with the client that keep scope in line, those strict staffing plans that guarantee the best possible work, and there’s the “always finding a way to say yes” without giving away the farm.

It’s easy to be one or the other – a pushover who is loved by the client or a hardass who constantly challenges them. It’s a different level of professional that can walk the line successfully and make a consistent, predictable profit. It’s a brutal balancing act that even great Account Managers and Directors struggle to perfect.

Steward of the brand
Last on the list is the role of cheerleader, brand ambassador, and subject matter expert within the agency. This is a bit more self-explanatory than the others, but there are a couple of important considerations.

Producers, Strategists, and Creatives want to believe in and get attached to their work. There are much easier ways to make a living, but we chose advertising because we love to create.

In most cases, we strive to “come along” and drink the Cool Aid as it adds up to better work and gets us through the long nights and weekends. Great Account Managers bring the love of a brand to their teams. They provide key insights that make the work smarter and leads to breakthroughs. I don’t mean simple consumer insights and demographic intel that any strategist can provide, I mean institutional knowledge, culture, heritage, mission, and core (sometimes unpublished) goals of the brand’s leadership.

This comes from hard-earned brand emersion, and it takes time, effort, and talent, but most of the greats understand the importance and consider it essential.

Hyperbole and exaggeration aside, by now, it should be clear that the modern Account Manager is at the very least the connective tissue that each department relies on to mobilize. Without them, we have crappy, mismatched work, our troops are uneducated and unmotivated, and without their client whispering skills, we’re likely bouncing along the bottom financially.

This role carries monumental responsibility requiring unicorn-like professionals – yet, so often, we fail to treat it as such when hiring and managing our Account teams, and we certainly don’t give the role it’s due in the hierarchy of importance in our agencies. If I had to point to one thing contributing to the ripeness of this industry for disruption, it’s this: We’re failing our clients who expect us to service their account per today’s needs and requirements. Period.

Want to debate a point or continue the conversation? Please drop me a note at or leave a comment below.

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