Ed Palmer

The future of account management

"The talent pipeline isn't as full as it once was"

Account management has faced challenges on multiple fronts but its relevance is clearer than ever argues the MD of St. Luke's

By Ed Palmer

First of all, I should declare an interest. I’m an account handler by trade, and co-chair the IPA’s Client Relationships group. So this is a subject that we spend a lot of time discussing.

In fact, back in 2020 we worked with Hall & Partners to commission research to look into just this topic – and its findings still feel relevant two years on.

The role of account management has changed a lot over the last 10 years or so, and there’s no doubt it has become harder to do well.

Client businesses have become more complex, the number of channels marketers are required to deliver in has grown exponentially, and marketing has become more interconnected with other parts of the organisation than ever before, adding to that complexity.

To be a credible partner for the client, account management needs to be able to keep abreast of all of this. And at the same time be on top of an ever changing media landscape.

Undoubtedly training has suffered for those rising through the ranks today. Budgets for training have dwindled: gone are the intensive four-day residential courses previous generations were given.

And the talent pipeline is not as full as it once was. The days of overwhelming numbers of CVs coming in for entry-level positions are over, partly because starting salaries have failed to keep up with other sectors, partly because some talent is being attracted to tech and startup businesses.

Coupled with this is a discipline that has suffered from being squeezed by procurement, who’ve not been clear on the value the discipline will add. And frankly account management sometimes doesn’t do itself any favours by not being confident and clear on its role within the process. My heart sinks when I hear of account handlers who default to the agenda and next steps slides in the meeting, when I know the reality of their role in the process has been fundamental.

At its best the core skills of what great account management can offer is more relevant than ever.

Leadership comes right to the top of that list. Teams required to deliver those big campaigns have become bigger and more unwieldy than ever before, multi-disciplinary, and often multi-agency. Delivering those big initiatives requires strong leadership to galvanise those teams, and make those big ideas happen.

A strong commercial brain that can act as the bridge between commerciality and creativity is also critical. The kind of brain that can effortlessly jump from a conversation about "shareholder value" to one about the "dancing bananas in the ads" is invaluable.

And perhaps most importantly, the emotional intelligence and empathy to forge those lasting relationships based on trust, that act as the bedrock of many of the great campaigns.

And the list goes on: entrepreneurship, persuasiveness, resourcefulness, adaptability, and so on.

Brilliant account management has a transformative impact on the work we do as an industry. If we can recognise this value, celebrate it more, and invest in recruiting and retaining the right talent, the discipline will continue to have a critical role to play in agencies as the model continues to evolve into the future.

Ed Palmer is the managing director of St Luke's


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