In November 2016, I posted a blog in response to several articles predicting the demise of agency account management. As I said then, this bell tolls every few years. And here we are, in August 2020, with a familiar ringing in the ears.

On this occasion, the professional body representing UK advertising agencies, the IPA, has published a new report that highlights current client concerns about the relevance and value of account management. These include lack of clarity on its role, doubts about the scale of its impact and an inability to attract and retain the best talent.

These are legitimate anxieties, of course. The context is, as it always has been, defined by the business environment for clients and, across the board, this has never been tougher. COVID-19 aside, we live in an age of measurement and accountability with the result that the microscope sits permanently over agency costs. Whether entirely reasonable or not, clients continue to expect agencies to do more with less.    

But, for me, this debate, whenever it rages, exposes that what is really under threat is indifferent account management rather than the function per se.

If the account handling team falls short on knowledge and experience, if it is unbalanced and insufficiently trained, if it is tasked to cover too many bases, then it will not perform to expectations and, consequently, will not be celebrated or held in high regard by clients.

It does not help that account management is more like darts than heart surgery. It is easy to do (after all, advertising and the like can be produced without it) but difficult to do well. I would argue vociferously that great work does not make it to the finishing line without energetic, tenacious, and ambitious account management.

In helping set the direction of travel and sensitively holding that line, strong account management provides an essential end to end service. The tricky part for great ideas is often not their birth; rather, it is their survival through distribution, approval, and production, to eventual release into the community that can pose the challenges.

Here is where accomplished account handlers earn their money, where their skills in diplomacy, problem-solving, and delivery maintain momentum, where character, continuity and credibility really count. In a recent Campaign piece, Nils Leonard, Co-founder of the Uncommon Creative Studio, praises their appetite to “fight the unglamorous battles every hour”, also acknowledging those who “create the conditions any great idea needs to become reality”. Dead right.

Alignment to client needs is non-negotiable, however. Account management must constantly adapt to commercial imperatives. To this point, I still think my seven tops tips from four years ago have merit:

  • Understand your clients’ businesses
  • Maintain a consultative style relationship
  • Leverage your wider agency learning
  • Get to know your clients personally as well as professionally
  • Understand your own business, where it adds/can add value
  • Keep the senior agency people involved
  • Collaborate

And, citing a further contribution to the current discussion, I agree with Caroline Foster Kenny, Global Chief Client Officer at Wunderman Thompson. In another Campaign feature, she also prioritises the importance of focusing heavily upon a client’s business outcomes.

For Caroline, “it is now time to reframe account management around client growth”. Agencies must adopt the mindset, working practices and incentives for account handlers to become effective “modern-day growth partners” to their clients.

Unsurprisingly, given my area of specialism, Caroline’s passion for the importance, in this endeavour, of building meaningful client relationships also resonates powerfully.

There remains an important role for expert account management in the development of creative work to which trophy clients and top agencies aspire.

But the quality issue must be confronted, to halt what appears to be a downward spiral. Let us hope that the industry’s most influential minds will be applied to inspiring and enabling the smartest of our nation’s diverse and resourceful workforce to become excellent account handlers, trusted advisors to clients who need them.