Close-Up: How to save the suit from extinction

Sarah Golding warns that undervalued account managers are being driven out of the industry.

I love being an account man. I think it's a great job. I've enjoyed more years than many doing it, and that's troubling. Not just because I'm getting on a bit now, but because so many of those who I've seen recruited, trained and about to flourish have left the industry, never to return.

I know it's so very fashionable to say: "Who cares? Account management has no place in modern creative agencies." But this isn't a fashion I subscribe to - and neither, I suspect, do a great many clients.

In the most recent YouGov Agency Reputation Survey, clients ranked account management higher than marketing strategy, digital ability or senior management quality in terms of the attributes they most value in an agency. In fact, account management capabilities were scored as pretty much equal to effective creativity. So the drain of account management out of our industry is a real and fundamental problem that has to be addressed if we are to flourish going forward.

The industry is moving in a clear direction, marching towards full service, the natural result of the drive to greater integration. Whether it's media offerings from creative agencies; mergers between above-the-line and digital leaders; DM agencies with new management teams from advertising backgrounds; or whole new multi-discipline groups, the evidence is clear that we are entering a new era of full service (or future service).

And in the era of future service, it will take a breed of skilled account people to provide the right service.

The axis between the client and the range of agency disciplines is so much more fundamental when it's more than just advertising that's being offered. I know it won't be the account person alone charged with these duties - more likely a super-duo of account person and planner - but the fact remains the role of impresario gets more exciting and important when the production being staged gets more complicated.

I can't wait. But it seems I'm in the minority.

As the chair of the IPA Client Services Group, I have been able to get a real insight into the world of juniorand mid-level account management across a range of creative agencies. We recently commissioned some in-depth research among senior account managers, junior account directors and senior account directors from seven IPA member creative agencies. The intention was to find out how they felt about the job they had now and continuing it as a long-term career.

The good news is that the fundamental attractions of the job remain as clear as they were when I started out - the people and the work. But whereas in the past that was enough to generate and sustain a dedication that kept us going through nights and weekends, today that isn't the case. The "work habit" I had, and still have, isn't one that many today are willing to form. Many of the perks are gone - the occasional long lunch, the decadent party, the foreign shoot - and all that remains is a long daily grind and a lack of recognition.

The former is expected in many professions, but the latter is an ongoing source of irritation. I have always found it an insult that account management is so rarely credited alongside the creative work we do so much to help get made.

And, trust me, the financial rewards are not sufficient compensation. It is hugely worrying to hear so many senior account managers and directors telling us that they fear the time when they have a family because they will have to leave the industry to earn a salary upon which they can support one.

It's not surprising, therefore, that the ranks of clients are increasingly swollen by ex-agency account people looking to earn a decent wage where they get some respect and recognition. This is an evidence-based picture and it's a bleak one.

So what's my solution? It's simple, really. A new agency era demands a rebooted account person: well-regarded, well-trained and well-rewarded. It's time for the whole industry to recognise the value account management will generate in the future-service agencies. Account management needs to stop being, and being seen as, the "go-betweens", and start being the "bridges".

David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker, has titled his recent biography of Barack Obama The Bridge. In part, this is a reference to a key event in the US civil rights movement, but it also reflects upon the president himself as being a bridge - a bridge between races, between religions, between capital and commerce, between parties and between classes. As far as I'm concerned, the leader of the free world is an account man.

In a recent speech to the IPA, Rapier's creative partner, Ed Morris, used a similar analogy as he described how much he valued account management as the mediators between commerce and creativity. But mediators suggests a battle and, ultimately, a compromise, whereas a bridge rises above the gap it spans and can take both sides to a higher place.

Think of it that way and the role we perform starts to look a bit different, and a whole lot more exciting, important and worthwhile. It also illustrates the important need for greater training to ensure account people are equipped to be the bridges that can ensure integrated agencies work really successfully. And when they do work well, that will help us in the fight to ensure the agency and those within it are remunerated properly too.

It's time to end the tired old "suit" put-downs and to look afresh at the role of account management in the modern agency structure, a role that is purposeful and pivotal, just like many of the most beautiful and useful bridges.

- Sarah Golding is a managing partner at CHI & Partners and the chair of the IPA Client Services Group.

TOP TEN TIPS - How to breed happy account managers

1. Give good training on relevant skills for today's media challenges, not just negotiating and presenting skills.

2. Give everyone a copy of Paul Arden's book It's Not How Good You Are, It's How Good You Want To Be.

3. Don't sit them all together - mixing account people up with creatives and planners ensures they all feel like one multi-discipline team.

4. Make sure they are always acknowledged internally on their role in good creative work being made.

5. Don't bullshit them. Be honest and straight about their skills and opportunities, and help them build both. No-one ends up respecting senior people who are full of smiles and platitudes but no action.

6. Grow up with them. Learn to see ex-grads and junior account people as a growing resource, rather than as "that grad from a few years back".

7. Keep the mix of clients they work on varied and fresh - the age of the retail unit is dead.

8. Tell them to always go home when the job is done. Don't let them hang around because you're still there; let them go and enjoy life outside the agency whenever they can.

9. Don't tut and pour the coffee yourself. Make it clear politely that they aren't above anything and should take pride in presenting a professional agency face to clients.

10. Remind them that however hard their work feels at times, it's never boring, and that's more than most of their friends can say.