In the Mad Men era, the account man (because it was, almost always, a man) played the roles of entertainer, hand-holder, babysitter and confidante to his clients. As the always-astute Roger Sterling once said, “Big accounts require a golf-and-dining offensive.”
But our industry is changing, and the account manager’s role is not so clear – or even, it seems, so necessary. What should the account manager’s role be today – project manager? Marketer? Or should we move to an all-planning model?
Some have begun to question the very value of the account manager role. Compared with other agency services with more tangible output – creative, content, design and strategy – it can be hard to see the relative value of account management.
Historically, account management was about leveraging what I call 'relationship currency' – that, essential, but not exactly tangible resource that makes clients stick around because they feel important, understood and taken care of. It's what comes out of relationships that are built on real trust. This is as crucial to agencies now as ever, since these days it’s often the clients, not the ad men, that are doing the bed-hopping.
What are the benefits of relationship currency in the advertising industry of today? Better work from the agency and better results for the client. In a recent study conducted by RPA and USA Today dubbed 'The Naked Truth', about 140 ad agency and brand marketing leaders were asked to share their thoughts on the state of the modern client-agency relationship.
While there was disconnect between the two sides on some issues, (when asked how much the best creative could move business, clients pegged it at 26 per cent while agencies think its more like 48 per cent) what 98 per cent of both sides agreed on was that trust between a client and an agency leads to the best work. Given that the definition of 'best work' can differ between a client that’s looking for hard business results and an agency that wants to flex its creativity, it’s clear that trust is the crucial element that bridges that gap.
The same study also found that 84 per cent of agencies and 81 per cent of clients felt that longstanding relationships led to the best work. If you can achieve the level of trust and understanding between a client and your agency, you are able to build a lasting relationship and achieve great things. Your clients will be more willing to go along with you, to get to the great work. Once the trust is in place, you can mutually push and challenge each other. And like a relationship between two partners, the relationship evolves: you have kids, buy a house together. The marriage lasts. Work gets made that both sides consider great.
The bottomless expense accounts – and bottomless martini glasses – may have been the old version of account management (they are, at least, the Hollywood-ized version of it.) Today, account management is not obsolete – it may be more important than ever. We just need to redefine its value in terms of relationship currency. Only once that is established can we achieve the outstanding creative work, technological innovation and business results that are the measures of our success.
So, how can we advance relationship currency in the modern age of marketing? Relationships – with the client and the customer – start with insights, both intuitive and learned. That means an account person needs a deep understanding of data, digital, and behavior; and needs to understand these things as deeply as a planner or specialist would. (In the old days, we called that 'marketing'). So maybe we should rename account management. How about 'account marketer' or 'customer marketing lead'?)
Turning insights into action through data that drives your client's business. Performance – that’s what adding value looks like. Relationship currency lays the foundation for the core skill of successful account management: Focusing on insights interpretation, and turning that into creative opportunities that drives a competitive durable advantage for clients that grows their business.
Matt Weiss is global chief marketing officer at Havas Worldwide and managing partner of Havas Worldwide New York