Every few years the death of account management is announced. In response, a stout defence is mounted, the debate rages for a while, then the obituary is withdrawn, some remedial care is prescribed and clients continue to interact with their agencies primarily via their account teams.

With a very uncertain year ahead, I can hear that bell tolling once more as commercial pressures and tighter budgeting disciplines impact on clients’ marketing and communications planning. As an example, there is some reluctance to pay for account handling unless it can be tightly defined within the scope of project management.

This latest threat to the role of account management is particularly worrying because it seems to be accompanied by penetrating self-inflicted wounds, as if the peaks of re-invention have now diminished to the point where the confidence and pride of young practitioners, along with their grasp of the role, are all but spent.

‘Hello, I’m Alex, I’m an Account Manager. I make stuff happen.’ I am sure that’s true but today it sounds like ‘Hello, I’m Alex. I’m an App.’ And no one pays for them.

I should stress that, while I was that Alex, I am not blind to the notion that everything has its day, that nothing has the right to live forever. But in an overwhelming world, where communication can be relentless yet remote, effective account management still provides the essential human glue which enables the parties to client/agency relationships to get the best from each other. At their best, account men and women are the inspiring generalists who take responsibility for the agency’s output, who understand the big picture, who hold the line on behalf of the brand and permit the specialists to be special.

Account management must adapt, however, and herein lies the source of client frustration. I am certain that good clients still regard account management as a pillar of strong agency performance. But it must be fit for purpose and, too often, it’s not. Account handlers know the basic melody (it’s a classic after all) but not the modern arrangement. And, of course, they might be learning from senior agency personnel who don’t know it either.

So, enough of exploring the problem, here are seven top tips, from my work as a business relationship consultant, for re-booting agency account management, for aligning some of the fundamental tenets of past success with the needs of clients in 2016.

  • Understand your clients’ businesses. Not just through the lens of the day-to-day clients and the marketing plan but a view informed by wider, longer-term company and industry dynamics. Digesting the Annual Report is a good place to start with the mutually beneficial mission of helping your clients master the present and own the future. Importantly, this is where account management can contribute to strategy, ensuring a focus upon specific, higher level business outcomes from the communications activity, even if overall strategic control is now shared with account planning
  • Maintain a consultative style relationship. In the past, the planning and execution of marketing activity pretty much demanded a constant client/agency dialogue. Now the process is more fragmented, less predictable and increasingly project-based. The resulting danger is that account management allows the rhythm of the work to dictate the rhythm of the client relationship. This can be fatal. A continuous dialogue, even if it’s only keeping a pilot light aglow, is important for sustaining an up-to-date understanding of client needs. In my view, five minutes a week is better than one hour a month. And to fuel your flame, of course, you must always be curious, never stop learning
  • Leverage your wider agency learning. Clients are endlessly searching for insight (and can now access similar sources often with greater resources than their agencies) but they rarely look beyond their own sector. Agencies work across categories and therefore can unearth and consolidate hugely valuable market intelligence. A client’s praise doesn’t come much higher than ‘they bring me fresh thinking, without being asked’
  • Get to know your clients personally as well as professionally. This is impeded by pressure on time and fewer social events. Persistence pays off, however. A rounded approach demonstrates commitment, deepens the relationship and can bring clarity and simplicity to your advocacy. Clients need editors now as much as they need originators. The result is a platform for actionable ideas and, significantly, for getting the little things right which is one step from the Holy Grail of becoming a trusted advisor
  • Understand your own business. And I don’t mean ‘We are an ideas company’! With so many options now, why would clients entrust their brands to people who are unable to speak intelligently and persuasively about the ambitions and commercial levers of their own enterprise?
  • Keep the senior people involved. Again, the old ways need updating here. In an age of accountability, no one is hands-off anymore. Whereas the operational client/agency team used to run the show, with light touch supervision, senior clients now want the influence of the top agency talent to be palpable and are seeking improvement in how their own involvement is managed by both their agencies and their own reports
  • Collaborate. Even if all your instincts scream ‘compete’. It is the fashion for clients, aided by Procurement, to administer elaborate frameworks of service providers. Agencies are required to navigate these complex rosters as never before while helping ensure that the best ideas emerge and survive. Any signs of elbowing your way towards a mythical top table will be punished. You must play nice. Surely, an instinctive account management skill?

Account management may appear to be easy but it’s hard to do well. Enlightened clients continue to want it done well and see the value in this important function. The role must be refreshed and reclaimed. To borrow this year’s most compelling exhortation, it’s time to ‘take back control’.