Newtons Cradle

the future of account management

Called to account

The account management discipline has always adapted to change. But how is it coping with more recent challenges? We've asked some top suits to tell us

By Jeremy Lee

Much like the clock on the old town hall, questions over the future of the account management discipline have struck with predictable regularity.

Except this time round the bout of existential soul-searching is based on something that seems more profound than those spasmodic crises of confidence (usually instigated by a disparaging public comment from a client), and from which they recover so soon. Enforced home-working, followed by a reluctant drift back to the office, has meant that many account handlers who pride themselves on their ability to lead teams and communicate effectively with their clients have found new pressure on their skills. Moreover, the ad industry's continued drive to diversify its workforce means that those traditional hunting grounds for trainee account managers - Russell Group universities - are no longer its sole source. Indeed, those people who are already in such a position and armed with similar qualifications could be forgiven for thinking that they are at a disadvantage.

Agencies are (finally) looking elsewhere to fill account management roles and people who might previously followed this career route are looking elsewhere - to consultancies, for instance, where remuneration levels may be higher and stress levels lower. Is this a cause for concern? Of course not. Account management departments should reflect the boardrooms (and the society) which they partner and help represent.

At the same time, brands are having to work harder and the commercial impact of creativity is (as it should be) becoming the most valued commodity. With agencies also having to prove that they can leverage brand, culture and commerce to achieve all of the above.

Tough economic times also leads to clients looking at agency fees - and one of the most obvious places to start is staffing levels. Account management roles have always, superficially at least, looked like an expense that can be trimmed and there's little doubt that these conversations will return again.

However, this represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the discipline. Account handlers have always had to adapt to keep abreast of changing media channels and consumer behaviour in order to keep abreast of developments in their clients' markets - and this has never been so important. So while some might see the technological shifts and the ascendancy of data over the past decade as a contribution to account management's obsolescence they are in fact grist to its mill. And marketers should realise that too.

Business skills are more important than ever as Ed Palmer, the managing director of St Luke's and co-chair of the IPA's Client Relationship group, points out in one of our forthcoming series of essays on the future of the discipline. Account management provides a bridge between commerciality and creativity at a time of increased complexity, he argues

The best account managers are, therefore, at least a steadying and reassuring hand and at best a vital business partner whose importance is in the ascendancy. It's probably also why so many account managers were those fast-tracked to agency management positions- it wasn't that long ago when a sharp intake of breath accompanied any announcement that a planner (or God forbid) a creative had been given an agency CEO role.

Recently this has changed, although these interlopers are likely to be the exception rather than the rule. If being a CEO is all about collaborative leadership rather than top-down autocratic control, it's little wonder that those values of collaboration, respect, agreeing behaviours and managing a tight group inherent in the best account managers are still so valued within the agency boardroom. They should be equally valued and cherished in their clients' boardrooms too.

Creative Salon is launching a series of essays from some of the best talent in our industry to talk about the discipline of account management and why there will always be a need to secure its long term future. Our first essay, unveiled tomorrow, is from Sam Hawkey, the chief executive of Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO.


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