26 January 2016
Running an agency

Why do agency account managers exist?

If you've work with a large design agency before, you've probably been assigned an account manager. They tend to be super charismatic people who are good at forming interpersonal relationships, and build a bridge between you and the agency. However you may also wonder what they actually contribute to the project, and why they appear on your bill at the end of the month.

This morning Alison Austin asked that very question...

Why do agency account managers exist? #seriousquestion

— Alison Austin (@alicenwondrlnd) January 26, 2016

It’s a valid question and one I’ve often wondered myself. As a company we’ve always been resistant to hiring dedicated account managers, having seen the worst excesses of our industry. I remember chatting to an account manager from a large digital agency, during a BBC supplier evening a few years back. She bragged at how she only got the job because she went to the same private school as one of their major clients and had a lifetime membership to The Ivy. It seemed her job largely involved getting clients drunk.

I suppose this is what account management was like back in the days of Madmen. You would win a big “account" made up of multiple smaller projects, then do everything you could to keep the client sweet. This is somewhat understandable when I remember another conversation I had a few years back, with the marketing manager from a large fizzy drink brand. He explain that their agency selection process involved picking 3 agencies from the NMA top 100 list each year, hiring one, and firing one of their incumbents. In this environment of fear, is it any wonder why agencies would do everything in their power to curry favour?

Fortunately I’ve only experienced this attitude once in my professional life. It was in the early days of our company and we’d just had a really positive meeting with a prospective client, so we invited them to lunch. From the booze fest that followed, it was clear these folks were used to being entertained; as they explained how they judged their agencies on the quality of restaurants they got taken to.

In some ways I could understand the attitude. I got the sense that they weren’t especially well paid (or indeed respected) by their company, so agency entertaining was one of the few perks of the job. However I looked back on the episode thinking that if we had to win work based on our ability to entertain clients rather than our ability to deliver, we would have failed as an agency.

While this attitude may still exist in some corners of our industry, it’s not one I recognise anymore. I like to believe that the majority of projects in the digital sector are awarded based on skill, experience, quality and price. So if the Madmen age is over, what do modern account managers do?

For very large accounts spanning multiple projects, the account manager acts as a constant presence on the project, ensuring the needs of the client are met. They’ll have a good understanding of the big picture challenges the client is facing, and be able to share those insight with the individual teams. They will also be there to help solve problems and smooth over any bumps in the road; essentially acting as the client champion within the organisation.

From the agencies perspective, they are also there as a consultant; helping to develop the client as a longer term prospect. This means working with the client to find new opportunities to solve their problems, possibly in areas the client didn’t know they had experience in.

In smaller agencies, this role is often done by the founder, project managers and project leads. In larger companies it’s centralised amongst a small number of account executives. It’s an important role, but not without it’s challenges.

Speaking with friends at agencies with a strong account management ethic, common gripes often come up. The main one being less experienced account managers promising clients new features with little understanding of what’s entailed. This is especially problematic on fixed price, fixed scope projects where margins are tight.

I tend to hear more concerns around account management from clients, who often feel that account managers are either too overtly sales driven (constantly trying to get them to spend more money) or acting as blockers between them and the people working on their projects.

Too often, these problems are caused by a misalignment between the clients needs and the way account managers are being judged and remunerated. Either that to it’s a reflection on poor agency practices and an attempt to keep clients at arms length, possibly to hide an ever changing team of junior practitioners and freelancers.

As such, while I understand the benefits of larger agencies hiring a small number of very experienced account managers, with a solid understanding of the industry, a large number of junior account managers always feel like a bit of a warning sign to me. However as somebody who has never really experienced account management first hand (good or bad) I’d love to know what you think?