Account management could be ‘squeezed out’ of agencies without rethink, IPA warns

Research was carried out by Hall & Partners.

IPA: clients increasingly expect agencies to do more with less
IPA: clients increasingly expect agencies to do more with less

Account management risks being squeezed out of agencies without urgent change to how the discipline operates, a new IPA report has warned.

Two years ago, Procter & Gamble chief brand officer Marc Pritchard drew attention to the precarious position of account managers when he told Campaign that creatives should make up about three-quarters of the staff of agencies – something that he said should “strip away anything that doesn’t add to creative output”. 

For the new report, The Future of Account Management, strategic brand consultancy Hall & Partners interviewed more than 30 client and agency leads on the challenges facing account management. It identified a series of trends that threaten the role:

  • Agencies are struggling to compete with tech companies and management consultancies for the best talent;

  • Clients increasingly expect agencies to do more with less;

  • The role of account management is not always clearly defined, making its value harder to perceive;

  • Agencies need to improve their ability to collaborate and facilitate between each other.

  • The study added that the Covid-19 pandemic and growth of the Black Lives Matter movement had accelerated these trends, meaning the process for the industry of responding to them will be a “sprint” rather than a “marathon”.

    “Even before Covid-19, clients felt that account management were too focused on the day-to-day and the growth of the agency rather than on client challenges,” the report noted. 

    “We heard from senior agency leads that the discipline never really bounced back after the 2008 financial crash, when roles became spread increasingly thin and the focus shifted and lost its way.”

    Moreover, many clients see account management as overcomplicated, with too many people with overlapping roles of responsibility – “a structure that implies breadth over multiple accounts rather than a depth of knowledge on a few accounts”.

    The study quoted one procurement lead as saying: “To be honest, no-one has ever really explained what the account management team does.”

    It suggested that agencies should think about “Y-shaped” careers, drawing a distinction between account management and project management for staff entering the later stage of their careers, noting: “The distinction between the roles is more evident at account director level and higher, where the transition to business consultant is vital.”

    The research also pointed to the lack of diversity among account managers at many companies in terms of ethnic and social background. 

    One client lead said: “Most of my account managers are in their early twenties, upper middle class in agencies in Shoreditch and white. They can’t understand my customer.”

    The report proposed three immediate actions the industry should take to secure the future of account management: celebrate and value the role; recruit the best talent for the future; and invest in and develop the talent it has.

    Ed Palmer, co-chair of the IPA Client Relationship Group and managing director at St Luke’s, said: “Over the past few years, and especially these last few months, there’s been much debate about the future of agencies, as we’ve been facing into the opportunities and challenges of technology disruption, new competitors and, more recently of course, coronavirus. 

    “But the IPA’s Client Relationship Group felt the role of account handling as a discipline has not really been a part of that debate. Until now. We hope the learnings from this study help to showcase the value this discipline can bring in creating better outcomes for clients and agencies.”

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