Account manager as orchestra conductor? OK, let's unpick that a bit
A view from Will Hooker

Account manager as orchestra conductor? OK, let's unpick that a bit

Like many analogies, there is both more and less to this than you might think.

Reading Campaign last week, I was delighted to see that one of our industry’s favourite analogies has returned for another performance: the account manager as the conductor of the orchestra.

Having specialised in orchestral conducting at university before starting a career in account management, this analogy has always fascinated me.

One of the key roles of the conductor is to bring out the best from a multitude of people and align them to one vision. The account manager is constantly doing this both internally with agency teams and externally with clients and their stakeholders. Helping to form a strategic vision for the family of National Lottery games, beneficiaries and distributors definitely reminded me of being on the podium.

But it’s not just the number of people that is similar, it’s the different ways in which they think. Perhaps the percussion section like to be told exactly when and where they went wrong? Whereas maybe the second violins just need some coaxing? Or, as Richard Strauss once said: “Don’t look at the trombones, it only encourages them.

Account managers constantly deal with people who think in different ways and it’s essential that they understand how to talk to everyone. My conversation with a junior creative team would sound very different to my conversation with the legal team from an FMCG brand. Even if the subject matter is the same.

In addition, it’s impossible to fix something if you haven’t been listening properly. The account manager will have the most direct conversations with the client about their business issues. But if we only listen to reply, not to understand, it’s impossible to engage with the wider agency and pull in experts as required. Similarly, if the conductor is only listening in order to have something to say when the music stops, it’s likely that they’ll miss the most important thing to fix.

But how you go about fixing these issues varies greatly. Just like account management, there is no set way to conduct. Yes, there are basic beating patterns and some useful techniques to learn (just as there are contact reports and status sheets), but it is primarily about the individual, their personality and their leadership style. Riccardo Muti is famous for his dictatorial approach with the orchestra, whereas Carlos Kleiber was perhaps more involving. Both will be remembered for being masters of the art.

Most importantly – and just like account management – the conductor needs to lead.

A professional conductor will say very little to their orchestra because they can demonstrate their musical interpretation simply through their gestures. However, crucially, all these gestures need to be seen and understood by the players before they have to play their notes. The conductor is therefore constantly having to think and act ahead of the music so that the players have time to react. Their movements can seem slightly out of kilter with the sound, but their job is not to move in time to the music – its to anticipate and to lead it.

I remember being in a meeting with my automotive client as they announced an exciting new sponsorship deal. There was much rejoicing, but it was my boss – the consummate account man – who said: "That’s excellent news. Now, we’ve got four weeks to create the sponsorship idents and get them on air. This is how we’re going to do it."

Dancing is moving in time to the music. Conducting is leading it.

However, there are of course a few holes in the analogy.

Firstly, the conductor is ultimately responsible for the music. Ultimately, but not solely, responsible. The players share the spotlight and it is evident if the trombone comes in at the wrong place or if the percussionist drops the cymbal. It is equally clear if the stage manager has provided broken stands or the lighting technician flicks the wrong switch. The audience holds these experts responsible for their specialist area.

Account management is ultimately responsible for the growth of the client’s business, but it cannot be solely responsible. In my experience, when it starts to become solely responsible, the "multiple layers" that Tina Fegent referred to last week start creeping into agency fees.

Secondly, most (or I would guess all) conductors have played an instrument to a very high standard. In fact, some conductors, such as Sergei Rachmaninov, were world-class performers or composers in their own right. In order for me to study at university, it was a prerequisite to have grade eight in at least one instrument and grade five in piano. However, this is not the same for account management. We have not studied to be a creative, strategist or marketer before we become an account manager. We have barely studied our own role.

Having said all this, I think it is worth pointing out that smaller ensembles sometimes don’t have a conductor. They are sufficiently intimate for the players to be able to communicate between themselves. Tom Jarvis made the case last week for his Wilderness agency not having account management but spreading that responsibility across the team. This is his string quartet compared with a larger agency’s symphony orchestra. Neither is right or wrong; they work in their different ways and there is appreciation for both.

But models like this are teaching the industry a very important lesson – and it’s the same one I was taught at university. After striking up the opening bars of the music, my teacher would tell me to stop conducting and just listen to the orchestra. “So,” he’d say, “that’s what they can do without you. Now make it better.”

However, if the role of account management is (re)defined in the future, we can continue to measure our value by asking ourselves the same question. Are we making it better? Or would it sound the same without us?

Will Hooker is former new business director at Havas London and conductor of The Pico Players

Picture: Finnish conductor Klaus Mäkelä conducts the Paris Orchestra during a rehearsal in July 2020 (Francois Guillot/AFP via Getty Images)