Death of the account man

The demise of the account person has been greatly exaggerated. John Tylee reports on the changing aspects of their role and why agencies can't do without them.

What makes a great account manager? It's not as simple a question to answer as it used to be. In the past, the most junior carried the bags, made the coffee and ordered the cabs. The most senior picked up the tab after the four-hour lunch, arranged the box for the opening day at Ascot and built relationships so close that it was not unknown for a top account man to become godfather to the offspring of a company chairman.

However, things have changed. Procurement pressures and tightened margins mean some clients are asking why they need to pay for people who, according to some, add nothing to the advertising process other than an extra layer of middleman-management.

But even in these abstemious times, its still hard to see why account people should be considered an endangered species. The proportion of agency staff working in account management has barely changed in the past 20 years, according to IPA census figures (just over 21 per cent last year, compared with 23 per cent in 1985).

Indeed, there are plenty in the market arguing that agencies can't get by without them. "Arrogant creatives often think they can do without account people," Andrew Cracknell, the former Bates London executive creative director and Lintas chairman, says. "But they always come unstuck."

Mother, however, is the obvious exception to this rule. It has successfully configured itself in a way that, it believes, reflects how accounts will need to be handled in the future.

The template was laid down when it launched a decade ago, and takes its cue from the eclectic background of one of its founding partners, Robert Saville, who worked as both a suit and a planner before becoming a creative.

Mother's focus is on the recruitment of what it calls "thinkers who do". They form part of three-strong account teams, which also include a strategist and a client-friendly creative.

The agency claims there are sound financial reasons for operating in this way. An agency of comparable size would need a 45-strong account handling department, it says. Not having one reduces overheads and allows for extra investment in other areas.

But financial reasons are not the only driving factor. According to Jonathan Mildenhall, Mother's strategy director, the system leads to a more intense relationship between agency and client. "When it goes well everybody feels good," he says. "When it doesn't, everybody feels the pain."

He claims this way of working has become such an integral part of Mother's culture that it will never be abandoned and may yet be replicated elsewhere. Not least because of what is happening in digital agencies, where a techno-centric way of working has, in some cases, squeezed out the conventional role of account manager.

It all seems to make great sense, but the fact remains that outside that agency, few examples exist of models which have successfully dispensed with the services of the account man. WCRS tried to cut out what it called "the non-productive middleman" when it set up in 1979, but later modified its approach because, according to one former senior manager, it uncovered a need for client-facing people combining patience with diplomacy.

"I suppose it is possible to operate without account people," John Banks, the former FCB London chairman, says. "But I can't think of many creatives capable of negotiating fees or planners who could make sure bills get paid on time. Nor do I think that they would want to."

Moreover, account management salaries still remain attractive. For example, a thirty-something account director in a large agency can expect to earn up to £70,000 a year; a top suit is likely to be on a salary of £150,000-plus.

And there are still plenty of senior clients around that see account directors as pivotal figures to their business. "The role of account people is changing, but they remain highly valuable to us," Jeff Dodds, the UK marketing chief for Honda cars, insists. "We need a single point of contact and our account director provides us with that. Having to speak to a lot of different people within the agency is not a good use of anybody's time."

Why, then, is there so much angst among the suits? It is probably something to do with the fact that the role of account manager is undergoing a fundamental change - and the truth is that there is an alarming shortage of account people with the breadth of experience agencies now require.

Just like Reggie Perrin at Sunshine Desserts, many account staff, particularly those at a more junior level, are now feeling frustrated and unfulfilled as traffic staff and project managers encroach further into their territory.

"Account management jobs have become lower in status because clients won't pay for them and agencies don't sell the job very well," Belinda Kent-Lemon, an employment consultant who works with agencies, says.

"Much of an account person's job these days is about responding to the flood of client e-mails which ask the same question over and over again."

It's a far cry from the heyday of account management in the 60s and early-70s, when account planning was almost unknown, and the industry spawned a generation of "account barons" whose top-level influence with client companies resulted in enormous power within their agencies. They were the consigliere who knew their client companies intimately, but remained untainted by their politics.

Today, although a few of these "barons" still rule, the changed nature of the relationship between clients and agencies and more buttoned-down financial controls has slimmed their numbers dramatically.

"The business has become less driven by relationships and more by agencies' ability to deliver against commercial objectives," Gary Stolkin, the chief executive of the headhunter Kendall Tarrant, says. "What's more, the much heavier 'churn' among marketing directors has rendered the old baronial relationships untenable."

A new generation of younger agency senior managers in the mid-90s, the usurping of account people's role by planners and improved communication, which negated the need for keeping high-flying global account people moving from market to market, are cited as other reasons for the demise of the "baron".

The problem is that the kind of account people with the skillsets needed to bridge these new advertising disciplines remain scarce. "The breadth of marketing communication has become immense; there is little training to enable account people to cope with it," Chris Powell, the former DDB London chairman, argues.

"Demand for good account handlers from agencies is strong, but their jobs have evolved. Finding the people who really 'get it' is difficult," Nick Grime, a partner at the headhunting operation Liz Harold + Grime, says.

Mark Rapley, one of the founders of the executive search company The Garden Partnership, agrees. "Account management was never easy, but now you need to be more eclectic than ever," he says. "You have to manage across a range of disciplines."

Mark Lund, the chief executive of Delaney Lund Knox Warren & Partners, believes account managers' tasks have multiplied as the industry's workforce has reduced.

"You've got to be able to do strategy and channel planning, while helping stimulate good, creative work," he points out. "This is because you're no longer surrounded by lots of people who always did those things."

For agencies, the evolving role of account managers presents problems. Not least how to recruit and reward the high-calibre account people clients demand. In many cases, they need to be capable not only of co-ordinating different disciplines in the agency, but also of getting outside specialists working towards a common cause.

"The first thing I want to know from my agency is which one of their people will 'own' my business," Andrew Marsden, the Britvic Soft Drinks category director, says. "And I expect that person to be pretty senior."

For an industry that continues to be disadvantaged by rival professions better able to attract young talent, this may be a harder demand to meet. "You won't find that many agencies willing to pay off your student loan to get you on board," a recruitment specialist says.

And those graduates who decide to enter the advertising industry may choose the communications environment of a digital agency, rather than a mainstream shop.

"As our need for account directors to manage the integrated process increases, we have less need for junior account handlers," Tim Lindsay, the Publicis Group UK chairman, says. "This raises issues about how you get good young people into the agency."

In the end, the death of the account person seems to have been exaggerated. "Account managers make things happen and drive change," Moray MacLennan, the M&C Saatchi UK group chairman and chairman of the IPA's client service committee, says. "It may be a more difficult role than before, but it's more challenging."


- Johnny Hornby - founder, Clemmow Hornby Inge

Always be driven to maintain the clients' perception of the brilliance of your team. As well as being clever, fun to be around, sociable and likeable, a great account handler is the client's rigorous, advisory and ever-relentless partner who shares in the brand and will go out of their way to deliver on anything. The secret is in the extra effort - when the client assumes the agency has achieved all it can, the emphasis is on the account person to make them feel extra valued and push even further.

- John O'Keeffe - executive creative director, Bartle Bogle Hegarty

Great account handlers are fearless, and immune to pressure - they deal with more of it than anyone. They know that building ideas, while being a lot more difficult, is better than simply knocking them down. They are unfazed by complexity because they have a clear vision of the destination.

- Phil Georgiadis - chief executive, Walker Media

My guiding philosophy to managing is based on the saying: "Tell the truth and you won't have to remember anything."

- David Wheldon - global director brand and customer experience, Vodafone

Great account handlers have integrity: they enjoy the full trust of their colleagues and clients. They speak the truth; it's easier to remember and they respect confidences. They retreat into the background when there is credit to be shared and they stick their chin out when blame is to be apportioned. Keep things in perspective - a sense of humour will make you a more steadfast (and happier) account handler. When the end result is great, all the grief it took to get there is worth it - so no room for whingers!

- Cilla Snowball - chairman, Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO

Account handlers are just waiters, but account managers are real chefs. They have to create, lead, manage and make it happen. They don't just simply take the order. Great account managers are on top of everything - the team, the workload, the competitive set, the data, the timetable, the next big initiative and the money.

- Gerry Moira - executive creative director, Euro RSCG

Love. Not the "dreamy, heart-sick kind". Not the "dirty, just kinda-sick" kind. Just a big, positive, all-embracing, profound affection for who we are and what we do. I could list all sorts of qualities and skills I admire in the best account people I have worked with but, as John Lennon said: "Love is all you need."

- Tim Lindsay - chairman, Publicis Group UK

Be ruthless. There is never enough talent in any one agency. You should fight for the best creatives and planners to be on your team and work for your client. Respect authority, but know when you can flout convention in the client's favour to deliver better work more quickly.

- Rory Sutherland - vice-chairman, Ogilvy Group

Account people labour under a profusion of job titles. But creative departments usually only recognise two kinds. These are "Good Account Person" and "Crap Account Person". The good account person recognises the primacy of the idea. Most important, they can mentally separate the idea from everything else - often better than creative people can.

- Simon Thompson - marketing director, Motorola

I would rather spend my life with the creatives and not the suits, but the reality is the creatives would rather spend their lives as far away as possible from the daily business needs. For me, a suit that fills in reports is an unnecessary cost. However, a suit that acts as the pivot point of the relationship, and makes sure we sell more for more while leveraging creativity to make sure we spend less, is worth every penny they earn.

- Mark Lund - chairman, Delaney Lund Knox Warren & Partners

An account man without a view on is advertising is as much use as an ashtray on a motorbike. Taken from the IPA publication Great Account Handling.

- Robert Ballin, the former FCB vice-chairman, almost certainly qualifies for "account baron" status, having been associated with the Daily Mail account for three decades. "Before planning arrived, the senior account man was expected to know everything possible about his client's brand," he recalls. "He was the fount of all knowledge who represented the client to the creative team. And if the creative work was 'off-the-wall', the trust between client and account man was such that it would invariably be approved."

- John Banks, the newly appointed Imagination chairman and one-time "baron" on Ogilvy & Mather's Ford account, says: "Account directors were always best placed to take on the leadership of agencies. While creatives came and went, they were the people who stayed. It meant they had a lot of power, even to the extent of having creatives they didn't rate moved off their accounts."