Charlie Rudd, Leo Burnett

The future of account management

"I don't believe there is a better training ground for agency leadership"

The chief executive of Leo Burnett says that no other department teaches you as much about how to build a sense of team vision, direction and spirit as account management

By Charlie Rudd

Since the beginning of my career (narrator: quite a long time ago…), there have been regular bouts of questioning the role and value of account management.

As a proud account man, I’ve found these existential questions both stimulating and threatening. I embrace the need to prove one’s worth in an industry which is under constant financial pressure from client procurement but equally I find it a little insulting.

Of course, bad account management is of no use to anyone. But good account management is often the key ingredient that can lift an agency from good to great. At our best we understand the client’s business and spot the opportunities that great work can deliver. Good account management has a rosy future, much as it had a few decades ago.

And although account management has always been a good route to agency management, it would be wrong to assume that all account people are in it simply because they are targeting the CEO and MD roles. It is a highly fulfilling role in itself! There must be a reason though why it has so often been the case that these senior roles have gone to former business directors and heads of account management.

To understand this account management dominance, I think it’s key to understand what the real job spec is for an agency CEO. The best agencies aren’t actually run by the CEO; they’re run by a leadership team in which the CEO plays a specific part.

For me, that key contribution is making the leadership team operate as a proper team – hiring the right people, building a shared vision, engendering mutual respect, agreeing values and behaviours, challenging each other yet ensuring they operate utterly tightly as a group. This then frees up the top people in the agency to work at their very best on a clear shared agenda. The CEO title is nice but you are basically Team Leader.

It is no surprise to me therefore that most CEOs and MDs come from the account management discipline. No other department teaches you as much about how to build a sense of team vision, direction and spirit. From our first days as account people we learn how best to mobilise and motivate disparate voices in our agency teams; every day is an education in people leadership and management. And I don’t believe there is a better training ground for agency leadership.

Charlie Rudd is chief executive of Leo Burnett London


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