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Client service to client leadership: the evolution of the account handler

By Matt Gully | Managing partner

Iris

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March 2, 2023 | 8 min read

Iris’s Matt Gully charts the recent evolution of the marketing discipline known variously as ‘account management’, ‘client services’ – and now for his own agency ‘client leadership’.

Abstract board game pieces in a configuration suggestion that one is leading the others

Has the client service function evolved into 'client leadership'? / Markus Spiske via Unsplash

Like many agencies, Iris has wrestled with defining the role of account management over the years. It’s a role that collaborates with multiple stakeholders and has different meanings from agency to agency, and person to person. How do you make sure this diverse role feels meaningful and empowering to those who undertake it? How do you make sure its identity crisis doesn’t disrupt the running of an account or leave fault lines in anyone’s career development?

Account handlers wear many hats: relationship manager, translator, accountant, salesperson, negotiator, project manager, entertainer, therapist – sometimes all in any one day. That’s an awful lot of PowerPoint, Excel, half-written emails and status documents open on our desktops, and a whole utility belt of reasons to wake up at 3 am in a cold sweat with that ‘did I turn the iron off?’ feeling.

When you do so much, it isn’t easy to describe what you do (I’ve tried and failed to explain it to my mother on several occasions). Even being clear to other departments within the agency and to clients can be tricky. As a result, in the last 15 years I’ve seen the perceived value of account handlers take a few hits.

A job evolved

To many, the role has been viewed as very operational: an admin role. The job titles don’t help; ‘client service’ feels prosaic and un-aspirational; ‘account handling’ lacks a key component – the client. We don’t just keep the account moving. Where’s the ambition?

Meanwhile, account handlers are demonized by colleagues for being clients’ henchmen, the blockers to ground-breaking, innovative and award-winning work.

I understand these perceptions and why they exist. But we are both, and we are neither.

When I started in the industry, the TV series Mad Men was getting peak viewing figures. Despite a degree that told me otherwise, I bought into the expectation of long boozy lunches, acting as best man at a client’s wedding, burying all their bodies (maybe this is where the henchman perception comes from), acting as a kind of legendary ringmaster. Never having to hard-sell an idea; the client was already sold.

Unfortunately, thanks to the recession in 2008 (my first year on the job), that expectation was promptly nipped in the bud. To date, I’ve never had a whiff of a lunchtime single malt or Cuban cigar (though I’m still very much in the market – and to clarify my hands are clean of blood and mud). Leaner teams and tighter budgets meant project efficiency. Cost savings and smarter ways of working felt necessary; client-facing roles needed to become a hybrid of client service and project management.

We pivoted and became shit-hot at delivering projects, but that hybrid role and the demands of solid project management led to many of us taking our eye off the ball, failing to prioritize the client-facing element of the job. I’ve been guilty of this. The spark was lost, and it was then that I realized that the client-facing side of the role is where the magic really happens.

Radical candor client leadership

That spark wasn’t lost entirely. If I squinted, I could see the role of account management evolving into exactly what it should. That’s where we are today.

Budgets are still lean, and we’re not always led by big creative ideas anymore. The integration of business and brand means it’s on us more than ever to be our client’s strategic marketing consultants. To be truly effective, we’re now empowered to get under the skin of the client’s business and understand more of their wider challenges, customers and ecosystems. We’ll look not just at the brand or marketing objectives, but the full business: strategy, financials, growth opportunities and potential risks.

It’s only when you spend that kind of time with someone and you get to know them personally, that you can use radical candor where necessary. You can be genuinely comfortable saying ‘no’ at the right times, for the right reasons. In return, your client will be comfortable hearing it. We become the client’s trusted advisor and first port of call in a crisis.

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At Iris, this shift came when we decided that, while efficiency was still essential, we didn’t want it to come at the cost of relationship building. We built out our integrated production department, aligning the specialist skills of integrated producers with accounts, and focused our client leadership (not ‘services’) teams on becoming trusted partners to our clients.

We’ve built the department with smart and curious business forecasters who look for (and find) both problems and opportunities. They’re confident relationship builders who can voice concerns and ideas before the client has even had a chance to taste the biscuits we’ve laid out.

Our best client people are continually curious, making it their business to have the kind of insights about a client and their business that elevate the creative process and the way it’s sold in, which is vital. As a lead creative agency, we are hired to make progressive, exciting, creative work; as client leaders, our role is to ensure we’re creating an environment for the best work to sell in the first place.

Over the years, I’ve fallen in and out of love with the role. But right now, it feels like this is the best possible time to get into the career. Gone are the days of the silent account people. No longer are we just there to book the next meeting. The role and value of our team is now strongly felt across agencies. The kinds of conversations we’re having with clients are more progressive and expansive. Because of that we can attract a much more motivated and highly skilled team.

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