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Account Management Client Relationships Agencies

Account handlers, here's why you should work like your name is on the door of the agency

By Brian McPherson, director of account management & associate partner

April 7, 2016 | 6 min read

It’s New York, 1963.

OK, fictional New York, 1963.

An administrative assistant at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce just ran over an account executive’s leg with a John Deere riding lawn mower. The account man is devastated. Not just because there is blood everywhere and his leg is pretty f—d up, but because, as he laments, “I will never golf again.” Everyone around him understands how serious this is: his career in advertising is OVER.

We’ve come a long way since the absurd days of Mad Men, but as account people, I’m not sure we’ve come far enough.

Even as recently as 10 years ago, account management was still founded on two principles: process facilitation and client handling. As someone once described the job, “You guys are kinda like the grease that makes the wheels go round.” The expectations were clear: orchestrate a known process and keep clients laughing, drinking, golfing and happy.

But advertising is in the midst of leaping forward. There’s been a real stretching—in a wonderful and energizing way—of the very definition of what advertising is. There are far more options for distributing advertising and way more technology available to make executions more useful and interesting. A quick look at last year’s Cannes winners shows that the leading edge of our industry is nowhere near TV, radio or print ads. It’s ideas, products, causes and earned media. It’s a bag of rainbow-colored Doritos to champion the LGBT movement. It’s an emoji you can text to Domino’s to order a pizza. It’s a luxury-car company that designed and built a hoverboard.

Our clients are feeling the effects of this more than anyone. As one CMO eloquently said in a recent study, “Although I’ve been doing this for 29 years, marketing has become more complex and technical. It’s virtually impossible to keep up with everything. I tell people that every year I learn more and more and know less and less.” Our clients need more than orchestration or drinks and dinner; they need help in navigating this brave new world.

So we account people have a problem: if we don’t evolve, we are going to become endangered. We need a modern set of words, a modern template we can point to and say, “The best account people are like that. They do that.”

Jeff Goodby told me a story once. He had hauled two creative people into his office who had exercised fairly bad judgment. He asked them whether they would have acted the way they did if their names were on the door, if it was their agency. To which they replied sheepishly, “Errr … probably not.” He didn’t say much else, but the point was taken.

Maybe Jeff’s question suggests our solution. As modern account men and women, in the face of uncertainty—and the possibility that comes with it—we need to be less employee and more entrepreneur. The pursuit of great work and strong client relationships didn’t used to require anything like this, but today it does. So here’s a new vision: whatever you are working on, whatever you are responsible for—whether it’s an account, part of an account or even simply a project—approach it as if you were running your own little company. Run your own little company. Be a founder and adopt the mentality that comes with it.

Stop mediating and start inciting. Start leading. See the issues more broadly, and develop an independent point of view that isn’t beholden to creative or clients, but to yourself. Trust your expertise. Put things intrepidly forward and care a little less about if you’re “wrong.” You might be, but don’t worry—critical advertising people will make sure to let you know.

Think, write and present. Account people perfected the art of chiming in and pithy one-liners. It’s time to develop a more substantive side. Someone once observed that the root word of “creativity” is “create.” Leaders, in so many forms, create. Let’s do a little more of that.

Approach your job with freakish control. Instead of being dragged along by the process and the people around you, cavalierly lead like a founder would, often in the face of I’m-not-exactly-sure-what-the-best-way-forward-is. We account people are very bad at failing. We’re going to need to get better at it.

Get scrappy about finding moments for the talented people at your little company to shine. Opportunity isn’t going to come from simply fulfilling client request after client request. To paraphrase Steve Jobs, if you don’t try to upset the status quo, you’ll forever just be living with the results of other people’s thinking.

So where does all this leave us? Molting, I hope. Advertising used to care about how well you “handle” clients and how “buttoned up” you are. Today, not so much. It’s not that those skills are necessarily wrong; they just aren’t helping the way they used to. Let’s shed some of the old to make room for a new mentality. With that in mind, whatever it is you find yourself working on, do a simple thing and ask yourself, “If it were my company, what would I do?”

Brian McPherson is director of account management and associate partner at Goodby Silverstein & Partners

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